This Week’s Movies

Cruising, one-week engagement starts Friday. Now that the controversy has passed, we can see William Friedkin’s 1980 gay S&M murder mystery for what it is: a mess. While it may offer nostalgia for older gay men who miss their wilder days, it has little to offer the rest of us. As a study of a unique subculture at a particular time that’s lost forever, it’s shallow and exploitative. As a murder mystery, it’s poorly structured and unsatisfying. As a character study, it offers an uninteresting character who’s hardly worth studying. Al Pacino, as an inexperienced, heterosexual cop going undercover in New York’s leather scene, mostly just looks confused. Read my full-length review. This presentation uses 4K digital projection.

Groundhog Day, Parkway, Tuesday, 9:15. Is Groundhog Day a deep, spiritual meditation on the nature of human existence and the power of redemption? Or is it simply the best comedy (although not quite the funniest) of the 1990’s? It’s hard to say, but as weatherman Phil Connors (Bill Murray) relives the same day over and over again, with no changes except the ones he makes himself, there appears to be something profound going on along with something profoundly entertaining. A benefit for Oakland Yellowjackets Bike for Breast Cancer Research.

Walking to Werner, Red Vic, Sunday through Tuesday. Some ultra-low budget, independent films make you thank God that low-cost video cameras have put the art of cinema into almost anyone’s hands. Walking To Werner isn’t one of those films. The picture documents director Linas Phillips’ 1,200-mile walk from Seattle to Los Angeles to meet his idol, Werner Herzog. Phillips met some interesting people on his journey, but he doesn’t spend much of his film letting us get to know them. He walked through some of the most beautiful terrain on the planet, but I know this from my own wanderings”“it’s not in the picture. Instead, he fills the film’s endless 92 minutes with his own whiny monologues about the physical difficulties of walking 1,200 miles. He knows early on that he has no chance of meeting Herzog at the end of his journey, but the great director’s voice (from interviews and DVD commentaries) plays frequently on the soundtrack, as if Herzog is talking about Phillips life and movie rather than his own work.

Steamboat Bill, Jr., Stanford, Wednesday, 7:30. One of Buster Keaton’s best, both as a performer and as the auteur responsible for the entire picture (it’s the last film in which he would enjoy such control). Steamboat Bill (Ernest Torrence) already has his hands full, struggling to maintain his small business in the wake of a better-financed competitor. Then his long-lost son turns up, not as the he-man the very-macho Bill imagined, but as a urbane and somewhat effete Keaton. You can look at Steamboat Bill, Jr. as a riff on masculinity or a study of small-town life as an endangered species. But it’s really just a lot of laughs seamlessly integrated into a very good story”“and you really can’t ask for more than that. The spectacular, climatic hurricane sequence contains what’s probably the most thrilling and dangerous stunt ever performed by a major star. On a Buster Keaton Double Bill with The Navigator; both movies accompanied by Christian Elliott at the Wurlitzer pipe organ.

Once, Parkway, opens Friday. The most romantic picture since Before Sunrise, Once charms you with winning characters, an odd kind of low-key suspense, and terrific music. The music comes out of the story, which concerns two talented but unprofessional musicians (Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová) becoming close friends and collaborators. There’s clearly a romantic attraction, but you’re never quite clear where it’s going to go. Wherever it goes, it gets there musically; if the film isn’t a hit, the singer/songwriter-style soundtrack will be. Sorry, but I have to say it: You’ll want to see Once twice.

Follow That Bird, Cerrito, Saturday, 3:00; Sunday, 2:00. I had a very young Sesame Street fan in the house when the only feature film built around that show was new, and it became his first theatrical movie experience. I haven’t seen Follow That Bird in many years, so I hesitate to grade it, but I remember it fondly. Like a Muppet movie (which, in a sense, it is), the movie serves up silly jokes, pleasant but forgettable songs, colorful visuals, and celebrity cameos. It also celebrates diversity and criticizes bigotry. If it were made today, no doubt it would instead tell children that they have to believe in themselves.

No End in Sight, Parkway, opens Friday. You may think you know how badly the administration bungled the war in Iraq, but Charles Ferguson‘s documentary tells the story so carefully, so dispassionately, and so authoritatively that you’re awed by the enormity of these people’s incompetence and the tragedy of its results. And you feel in your gut not only that today’s situation is hopeless, but that it didn’t have to be this way. Most Iraq war documentaries focus on the regular folks caught in the war, but Ferguson tells most of the story through the people who ran the occupation during its first few months, such as Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and former Ambassador-to-Iraq Barbara Bodine. No End in Sight is easily be the best documentary of the year so far, as well as the most depressing. Click here for a full review.

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.

Hairspray, Lark, opens Friday (not playing Monday or Tuesday). In the early 1960’s, Americans died horrible, violent deaths over issues of racial equality. And now it’s a musical! Well, why not? The Hollywood version of the Broadway musical based upon John Water’s original independent film celebrates the spirit of the civil rights movement by turning it into one big, happy dance contest on local daytime TV. The result is charming, upbeat, and very funny, with pleasant musical numbers, joyous dancing, political themes that would have been radically dangerous 45 years ago, and John Travolta in a fat suit and a dress. What’s not to like?

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, Old Mill Park, Mill Valley, Friday, 8:30. Yet another bad sequel to a good movie. Whereas the original Pirates of the Caribbean (which will be screened the following night) tread lightly over its silly story, this one takes itself seriously. But as there’s nothing serious about the shallow and meaningless story, so the dark imagery and poor attempts at character development just get in the way of the fun. Worse yet, it ends with a cliffhanger; no one is supposed to see Dead Man’s Chest and skip the third installment. Two good action scenes aren’t enough to justify an otherwise dreary 2 ½-hours. Like all Film Night in the Park presentations, it’s just a DVD.

The Big Lebowski, Clay, Friday and Saturday, midnight. 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. It’s also built quite a cult following;The Big Lebowski has probably played more Bay Area one-night stands in the last two years than than any three other movies put together.