This Week’s Movies

Revolution Summer, Roxie, opens Friday. Young people looking for sex, drugs, and violent revolution wander through a predominately-white Oakland in a film allegedly set today but feeling like the early 1970’s. The acting by young unknowns is uniformly excellent, especially Mackenzie Firgens in the starring role. But the slow pace, overuse of close-ups, and clumsy storytelling alienate the viewer. The occasional corny speech and title card commentary don’t help.

Harry Potter Marathon, Castro, Friday through Monday. If the DVDs seem more muggle than magic, the Castro screens the first four Harry Potter movies as a quadruple feature Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. The first two films, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, follow the books with religious fidelity but little imagination, doing little beyond turning Rowling’s clever prose into less than clever images. Things improve considerably with the third movie, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. But the series really kicks into high gear as the kids mature in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. (Click the linked titles above for microreviews.)

and Star Wars, Creek Park, San Anselmo, Friday and Saturday, 8:30. In 1977, George Lucas made the most entertaining light action movie since Errol Flynn died. Over the next six years, he made two sequels that deepened, rather than cheapened, the original. Then he had to ruin it all by continually tinkering with his best work and taking the originals out of circulation. Because the original trilogy depended very much on a detailed image on a giant screen, and because Lucas has since released two altered versions, how I grade the original Star Wars depends on what version is being shown and in what format. Friday night, Film Night in the Park will screen the original, 1977 version; Saturday night, the latest, 2004 alteration. Both will be DVD presentations.

The French Connection, Castro, Thursday. Perhaps the grittiest, filthiest, most realistic contemporary drama to ever win the Best Picture Oscar. A mystery and a character study about a foul-mouthed, violent, and borderline racist police detective (Gene Hackman in the best performance of his career), The French Connection sinks you into a dirty business and the people who have to do it. It also includes one of the best car chases in movie history. On a William Friedkin Double Feature with To Live and Die in L.A.

Valley Girl, Parkway, Tuesday, 9:15. Was there ever a less promising film to become a classic? Made on a miniscule budget, financed by people more concerned with tits than story, with a title ripped off from a recent hit novelty song, it was just one of many teenage sexploitation movies then glutting the early-’80s drive-ins. Yet writers Wayne Crawford and Andrew Lane and director Martha Coolidge made it the ultimate teenage romantic comedy. Valley Girl sports Nicolas Cage in his first major role and makes some of the best use of rock ‘n’ roll ever in a non-concert movie. A National AIDS Marathon Training Program benefit.

Golden Door, Lark, opens Friday. Emanuele Crialese begins his immigration allegory with two men climbing a mountain, barefoot, each carrying a sharp stone in his mouth. From there, Crialese fills his tale with strange, beautiful, and occasionally bewildering imagery. He also fills it with fascinating people and a dry, sardonic humor. Many of his characters–Italian peasants emigrating to America–are superstitious, ignorant, maybe even stupid, but they’re decent people and we care very much for them. We also care for the considerably more worldly Englishwoman who joins them on their journey, but in part because she’s played by Charlotte Gainsbourg. Through these people’s eyes and experiences, Crialese shows us the entire process of leaving a community, crossing the ocean in steerage, and navigating the inspections and bureaucracy of Ellis Island, all in more detail than I’ve ever seen it before. A unique, remarkable, and funny motion picture.

Le Doulos, Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 6:30. Why have I never seen a French film noir before? True, Americans invented the genre, but the French named it. Le Doulos doesn’t add anything really new and exciting to the genre (besides some brief nudity–something that wasn’t allowed on American screens in 1962), but it’s a darkly fun story of double-crosses and quadruple-crosses amongst hardened criminals. The story confused me a few times, but it all comes together in some surprising ways at the end.

Torn Curtain, Creek Park, San Anselmo, Sunday, 8:30. By the mid-1960’s, many people felt that the aging Alfred Hitchcock had lost his touch. Torn Curtain makes a good argument that they were right. This cold war thriller has one great scene (the murder in the farm house) and another good one (the discussion in the classroom as security alarms go off), but aside from that it just doesn’t work. A large part of the problem: Paul Newman and Julie Andrews fail utterly to produce the romantic and sexual sparks that the story so utterly depends on. Another Film Night in the Park DVD presentation.

La Vie En Rose, Elmwood, opens Friday. Early in this Edith Piaf biopic, a hunched, aged-before-her-time Piaf walks up to a recording studio microphone. She looks bored and mildly annoyed. When she starts singing in that incredible voice, she still looks bored and annoyed, her facial expression contrasting sharply with her soaring vocals. I knew then that La Vie En Rose wasn’t going to be a happy film about the redemption of art. Marion Cotillard gives one of cinema’s great performances as Piaf, whose short life–at least in writer/director Olivier Dahan’s view–was about as miserable as a life can get. Horrendous childhood, bad luck, and her own selfish and unpleasant personality hurt her at every turn. This isn’t an easy film to watch, but it is also impossible to ignore. Great songs, too.

Stardust, Parkway, opens Friday. Magic. Every positive implication of that word applies to Matthew Vaughn’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s fantasy novel. No attempt to describe the plot can do it justice, so let me just say it concerns a callow youth (Charlie Cox), a fallen star (Claire Danes), an evil witch temporarily restored to her youthful beauty (Michelle Pfeiffer), seven evil princes, and a flamingly gay pirate (Robert De Niro). Like Princess Bride, Stardust manages to mix silly humor with likable (I wouldn’t go so far as to call them realistic) characters and thrilling fantasy swashbuckling. Easily the best action film I’ve seen this year.

The Bourne Ultimatum, Cerrito, opens Friday. 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.