Lebowski of Arabia

Lawrence of Arabia, Castro, Saturday and Sunday. Lawrence isn’t just the best big historical epic of the 70mm roadshow era, it’s one of the greatest films ever made. Stunning to look at and terrific as pure spectacle, it’s also an intelligent study of a fascinatingly complex and enigmatic war hero. T. E. Lawrence–at least in this film–both loved and hated violence, and tried liberating Arabia by turning it over to the British. This masterpiece isn’t worth seeing on DVD and barely worthwhile in 35mm. Shot in Super Panavision 70, it takes 70mm to reach it’s potential. Part of the Castro’s 70mm Festival series

3:10 To Yuma, Presidio, opens Friday, Balboa, ongoing. Good news: The western is very much alive! The second film version of Elmore Leonard’s short story doesn’t feel like a neo-western, an anti-western, or a western parody. It feels like a great, classic western, and stands a good chance of achieving classic status in future decades. Like all great westerns, it offers plenty of action and suspense, but is really about men, how they relate to each other, and the difficult moral choices that the frontier forces on them. Russell Crowe, as a notorious criminal, and Christian Bale, as a rancher desperate enough to take a very dangerous job, both bring to the film the right look, talent, charisma, and American accent (has anyone else noticed that this very American story stars an Aussie and a Welshman). Despite a third act filled with implausible motivations, 3:10 To Yuma is thoughtful, intelligent, testosterone-pumping entertainment.

Strange Culture, Rafael and Roxie, opens Friday. Like American Splendor, Strange Culture mixes scripted drama performed by professional actors with documentary footage and interviews of the real-life, still-living people those actors are playing. And while Steve Kurtz lacks Harvey Pekar’s fascinating personality, his story is both compelling and frightening. Kurtz woke up one morning to find his wife dead. Then he was arrested as a bioterrorist. The terrorism charges have been dropped, but he’s still awaiting trial for mail fraud (although no one was defrauded). It’s hard to go wrong with so powerful a story, and writer/director Lynn Hershman Leeson makes an effective piece of agitprop.

Spartacus, Stanford, Saturday through Tuesday. When we think of toga movies from the late ’50s and early ’60s, the adjective “great” doesn’t come to mind (unless we mean size rather than quality). Sure, Spartacus has everything we look for in the old roadshow epics: stirring music, thousands of extras, an intermission. But it moves you to triumph and tragedy instead of laughter and boredom, while making important points about the exploitation of human beings and the ease with which a morally compromised republic can slide into dictatorship. The first Hollywood film to credit a blacklisted screenwriter (Dalton Trumbo) and the only movie directed by Stanley Kubrick that isn’t a Stanley Kubrick film, Spartacus is so good you can almost forgive it Tony Curtis’ performance. (Hey, it’s a toga movie; there has to be something laughable.)

2001: A Space Odyssey, Castro, Tuesday and Wednesday. I used to worship Stanley Kubrick’s visualization of Arthur C. Clarke’s imagination. But it hasn’t aged all that well; we’ve all seen the actual year, and know that Clarke and Kubrick got almost everything wrong. Yet there’s no denying the pull of 2001’s unorthodox storytelling and visual splendor–if you can see it in the right theater. 2001 was shot for 70mm projection on a giant, curved, Cinerama screen–an experience that’s simply not available in the Bay Area today. It’s still worth catching on a really big screen, even a flat one, especially if it’s from a 70mm print. Another attraction in the Castro’s 70mm Festival series.

Fight Club, Parkway, Tuesday, 9:15. Strange flick. Edward Norton wants to be Brad Pitt. Who wouldn’t? Pitt’s not only shagging Helena Bonham Carter, he’s also a free-spirited kind of guy and a real man. Or maybe he’s just a fascist? Or maybe…better not give away the strangest plot twist this side of Psycho and Bambi, even if it strains credibility more than a speech by George W. Bush. And Bonham Carter gets to say the most shocking and hilariously obscene line in Hollywood history.A benefit for Heroes.

Double Indemnity, Cerrito, Saturday and Sunday. Rich but unhappy (and evil) housewife Barbara Stanwyck leads insurance salesman Fred MacMurray from adultery to murder in Billy Wilder’s noir thriller. Not that she has much trouble doing it (this is not how we who grew up on “My Three Sons” remember MacMurray). A good, gritty thriller about sex (or the code-era equivalent) and betrayal. Another Cerrito Classic.

No End in Sight, 4Star, and Elmwood, 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.

Once, Balboa, opens Friday; continuing at the Parkway. 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. The Balboa will screen Once on a double-bill with Waitress.

Little Miss Sunshine, Creek Park, San Anselmo, Friday, 8:30. I’m glad this movie is a comedy; a drama with these characters would be unbearably depressing. Little Miss Sunshine puts a supremely dysfunctional family on the road in a broken down VW bus, with the goal of entering their prepubescent daughter into a beauty contest for girls too young to have any business in a beauty contest. The result opens a window into the souls of four damaged adults and two youths destined for damaged adulthood, while delivering a steady stream of strong, deep, and sustained laughs. Not a simple feat for a first-time screenwriter (Michael Arndt) and two directors experienced only in music videos (Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris). Like all Film Night in the Park presentations, this one is just from a DVD.

Cars, Creek Park, San Anselmo, Saturday, 8:30. So much for the animation studio that could do no wrong. Pixar’s first bad movie suffers from two inexcusable faults. First, the protagonist is neither likeable nor interesting, despite being voiced by Owen Wilson, who is quite capable of being both. And second, the 116-minute picture is too long for its few laughs and predicable characters. Cars lets the mind wander, and mine wandered towards some very basic problems with the premise that wouldn’t have bothered me in an entertaining movie. Another Film Night in the Park DVD presentation.

The Big Lebowski, Aquarius, 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.

Ongoing Engagements