What’s Screening: August 29-September 4

it’s been a very busy week for me, with visiting family, changes in my PC World column, and a major hardware upgrade. So please excuse me if I missed a few things, like the new Pacific Film Archive schedule. I will get to them, hopefully, early next week.

West Side Story, Castro, playing all week. I haven’t seen this classic in so long I dare not review it, but it’s worth noting that this strange mixture of Shakespeare, ballet, and ’50s urban liberalism will screen in all it’s 70mm glory.

I Served the King of England, Embarcadero, opens Friday. For more than half of its runtime, Jiríh Menzel’s clever and entertaining comedy celebrates the joys of serving the filthy rich. We accept this empty and amoral theme because the movie is funny and visually pleasing, but even more because Ivan Barnev is engaging and likeable as the story’s ambitious waiter protagonist. But just as the fun and games begin to tire us, the Nazis arrive. Jan falls in love with a German girl, collaborates with the enemy, and shows us just how low he can go. Told mostly in flashbacks, I Served the King of England maintains its light tone throughout; even when events get very dark. Read my full review.

Yojimbo & The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 6:00. I’m not listing this officially as a DOUBLE BILL because the PFA charges separate admissions, but they’re showing the two films on the same night and they should go very well together. In Yojimbo, a masterless samurai (who else but Toshiro Mifune) wanders into a small town torn apart by rival gangs, and uses his wits and amazing swordsmanship to play the sides against each other. In the hands of Akira Kurosawa, the result his an entertaining action flick, a parody of westerns, and a nihilistic black comedy all rolled into one. The last film in the PFA’s The Long View: A Celebration of Widescreen series. The biggest and the best of Sergio Leone’s “spaghetti” westerns, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly 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. Part of the PFA’s United Artists: 90 Years series, although it’s another great widescreen movie.

The Ten Commandments (1956), Stanford, Saturday through Thursday. How do you grade a movie that you really love, but is–let’s face it–not very good? Cecil B. DeMille’s last epic is corny, melodramatic, and theologically ridiculous. It also raises pomposity to a whole new level. But in addition to being unintentionally hilarious (I could probably write an MST3K script for it in my sleep), it’s also beautiful to look at, and never, ever boring–no small feat for a flick that runs 220 minutes. There are even moments, few and far between, when the power of the original story overwhelms the silly shenanigans and takes hold of your heart.

Double Indemnity, Rafael, Saturday, 7:00. Rich but unhappy (and evil) housewife Barbara Stanwyckh 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 the MacMurray character we remember from “My Three Sons”). A good, gritty thriller about sex (or the code-era equivalent) and betrayal. Part of the Rafael’s Fred MacMurray 100th Birthday Salute.

I Served the King of England

Period comedy

  • Written and directed by Jirí Menzel
  • From a novel by Bohumil Hrabal

If you weren’t lucky enough to be born wealthy, and you haven’t made your own fortune, You should devote your life, for your own, selfish reasons, to serving the filthy rich? Whether you’re a waiter or a prostitute, you’ll have a wonderful time.

For more than half this movie’s runtime, that appears to be the theme of Jirí Menzel’s clever and entertaining comedy. It’s an empty, meaningless, and, when you think about it, totally amoral message, yet we accept it, in large part because Ivan Barnev is engaging and funny as the story’s protagonist, an ambitious waiter named Jan Díte. Barney looks a bit like Alan Tudyk (Death at a Funeral, the “Firefly” TV series), and has much the same comic aura, with an added dash of Charlie Chaplin. Barney carries the picture well on his diminutive shoulders.

The picture also looks great, set mostly in the 1930s and filled with clever visual touches and with images of a lifestyle you couldn’t possibly afford. And it’s just plain funny.

We also accept the premise because we know Jan has less happy times ahead of him. The movie begins with an older but wiser Jan (Oldrich Kaiser) released from a Communist prison (his release involves the first of many clever sight gags). Most of the story is told in flashbacks as Jan enjoys his new freedom and contemplates his past life. The flashback structure and the prison opening assure us that Jan’s life isn’t all fun and games.

Yet fun and games dominate most of the picture. But just as they begin to get tiring (for the audience, not Jan), the Nazis arrive, raising the stakes. Jan falls in love with a German girl, collaborates with the enemy, and proves just how amoral he can be.

Even as it gets heavy, I Served the King of England maintains its light tone. The result is an odd mix of escapist entertainment and serious (if not exactly profound) message that works better than it has any right to.

Two warnings:

First, there are subtitle problems. The beginning of the film involves a lot of first-person narration over wonderfully entertaining images, forcing you to decide between reading and watching. Later in the film, the subtitles are occasionally unreadable.

Second, this is a very sexist movie. Most of the women Jan encounters and beds are prostitutes. They seem to enjoy their work. When Jan finally has a real, romantic relationship, it’s with a Nazi.

I Served the King of England screened at the 2008 San Francisco International Film Festival.

What’s Screening: August 22-28

American Teen, Roxie, opens Friday. I can’t think of another documentary that felt so much like narrative fiction. American Teen, which follows four kids in their last year in a Warsaw, Indiana high school, is structured very much like a Hollywood movie, with struggles, lessons, and triumphs all in the right order. On one hand, this makes you wonder how much writer/director Nanette Burstein manipulated reality and the cinéma vérité tradition to get what she wanted. On the other , it makes for good story-telling. Read my full review.

Blockheads, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum Sunday, 4:30. Talkies at the Silent Movie Museum? The rule: Laurel & Hardy made many of the funniest two- and three-reel shorts ever shot, but their features suffered from the need to provide a real plot. The exception: Blockheads. The boys made one of their few good features by simply ignoring that silly rule about plots. True, laughs are scarce for the first 15 minutes as the basic situation (they haven’t seen each other in 20 years) is set up. Then we’re treated to 45 minutes of Stan and Ollie simply trying to get home, cook a meal, and clean an apartment. And that’s funny. With two Our Gang shorts.

Loves Comes Lately, Opera Plaza, opens Friday. A grand-niece of Isaac Bashevis Singer once told me that the great writer never really accepted the fact that women threw themselves at him because he was famous. He thought he was irresistible. Such confused thinking permeates Jan Schütte’s clumsy adaptation of three Singer stories. Love Comes Lately follows the adventures of a short-story writer who’s an obvious Singer alter-ego, and dramatizes two short stories whose protagonists are obvious alter-egos of the alter-ego. Otto Tausig plays all three characters, and yes, they’re all irresistible to women. Schütte manages a few good scenes, but the movie goes nowhere and leads to nothing. Read my full review.

Obama’s Acceptance Speech, Parkway & Cerrito, Thursday. Doors open 5:15 at the Cerrito and 6:15 at the Parkway. Why watch it at home when you can still in the middle of a crowd of cheering lefties? Both screens at both Speakeasy theaters will project Barak Obama’s nomination speech live, free of charge.

Killer of Sheep, Red Vic, Sunday & Monday. Yes, Virginia, people made great low-budget films before digital video. Shot in 16mm in 1977, Charles Burnett’s neorealistic non-story lets us examine the day-to-day life of an African-American slaughterhouse employee struggling with poverty, family problems, and his own depression. Hauntingly made with a mostly amateur cast, Killer of Sheep takes us into a world most of us know about but have never actually experienced.

Forbidden Planet, Cerrito, Saturday, 6:00 & Sunday, 5:00. Nothing dates faster than futuristic fiction, and with its corny dialog and spaceship crewed entirely by white males, Forbidden Planet is very dated. But MGM’s 1956 sci-fi extravaganza still holds considerable pleasures. The Cinemascope/Eastmancolor art direction pleases to the eye, Robby the Robot wins your heart, and the story—involving a long-dead mystery race of super-beings—still packs some genuine thrills. It’s also an interesting precursor to Star Trek.

2001: A Space Odyssey, Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 8:40. 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. In 35mm on the PFA’s flat, modest screen, it rates only a C. (OTOH, if you can get down to LA in a couple of weeks, it will screen exactly the way it was meant to be screened at the Cinerama Dome on September 5. Part of the PFA’s The Long View: A Celebration of Widescreen series.

Love Comes Lately


  • Written by Jan Schütte, from three stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer
  • Directed by Jan Schütte

I hesitate to describe Love Comes Lately above as a “drama,” since it isn’t particularly dramatic. On the other hand, it’s not very funny, either. Nor is it exciting, historical, romantic, or erotic. I think it’s supposed to be insightful.

A grand-niece of Isaac Bashevis Singer once told me that the great writer never really accepted the fact that women threw themselves at him because he was famous. He thought he was irresistible. Keep that story in mind when you see this movie–should you make the mistake of seeing it.

Writer/director Jan Schütte weaves together three Singer stories (“The Briefcase,” “Alone,” and “Old Love,” none of I’d read at the time I saw the film) by following the adventures of a short-story writer, who, in the course of the film, writes two short stories. Otto Tausig plays both the writer, Max, and the protagonists of the other stories. That‘s not much of a stretch; all three characters are old Jewish widowers raised in Europe but living in America. They’re also, of course, irresistible to women.

But there’s a difference. The two alter-egos–the men Max writes about–are both unattached and lonely. Something keeps them from connecting, emotionally and physically, with the women who so clearly want them. Max, on the other hand, has a steady and long-time girlfriend to cheat on. He doesn’t want to cheat on her, but when temptation arrives in the form of Barbara Hershey as a former student, how can he resist? When he gets into real trouble, caused by his encroaching senility, not his infidelities, the girlfriend (Rhea Perlman) no longer believes him.

Schütte managed to write and direct a handful of good scenes: An Amtrak conductor asking increasingly personal and bizarre questions. Max flirting with a young and pretty fan. Elizabeth Peña, as a crazy cleaning lady, practically raping one of Max’s alter-egos. But the scenes go nowhere and lead to nothing.

I’m not sure when the film is supposed to be set. Cars and trains look modern, and there’s a Viagra joke, but everything else seems to come from the mid-20th century. I can accept that an old writer, set in his ways, would still use a typewriter, but I have hard time accepting that a man who travels the lecture circuit wouldn’t carry a cell phone–or a credit card. Max gets into trouble that either of these conveniences would have alleviated.

Schütte probably wanted to make a period film but couldn’t get the budget. I’m sure he also wanted to make a good film. He didn’t.

This film screened at the 2008 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

Upcoming at the Rafael

Just a quick note about what to expect at the Rafael over the fall.

Tributes: Both Ingmar Bergman and Irving Thalberg will receive retrospectives. (I don’t believe the phrase “brilliant and historically-important filmmaker” can accurately refer to two more different people.) Bergman’s runs October 13-19, and will include a multimedia installation called “Ingmar Bergman: The Man Who Asked Hard Questions” (I hope the title is snappier in Swedish), an interview documentary, and films never before shown in the Bay Area.

Boy genius Irving Thalberg, who ran Universal Studios before he was old enough to sign checks, ushered MGM into its golden era, and died at 37, will receive his retrospective October 24-November 6.

Actual films and dates haven’t been disclosed.

Also planned, but not scheduled into specific dates is a show on the Films of 1908 which will include D.W. Griffith’s directorial debut, and shorts from the Sundance Festival.

And, of course, there’s the Mill Valley Film Festival running October 2 through 12 and once again interfering with the Jewish High Holidays. No details have been announced.

American Teen


  • Written and directed by Nanette Burstein

I can’t think of another documentary that felt so much like narrative fiction. American Teen follows four kids in their last year in a Warsaw, Indiana high school. They apply for college, they get drunk, they fall in and out of love. In other words, they do what everyone else does in that last scary year before everything changes.

But they also have humbling experiences, learn valuable lessons, and begin to believe in themselves. In other words, they do what everyone else does in a Hollywood movie. This is real life with convenient story arcs.

American Teen‘s four “stars” all appear at first glance to be stereotypes, but as the movie progresses, we get to know them as real people. There’s rich, beautiful, and popular Megan, star jock Colin, pimply and awkward band geek Jake, and artistic rebel Hannah (easily the most likeable one of the lot). We get to know other kids, as well. Another jock, Mitch, seems to have won last-minute star status when he started dating Hannah.

Much of what they go through breaks your heart. Hannah’s mother, trying to stop her daughter’s plans to move to San Francisco, tells her she isn’t special. Colin’s Elvis impersonator dad warns him that if he doesn’t get a basketball scholarship, he’ll have to join the army. One friend of Megan’s photographs herself topless and emails it to her boyfriend, with embarrassing results.

American Teen falls into a documentary tradition called cinéma vérité, where the camera records actual events without–so the theory goes– effecting them. Of course, it’s impossible to have a camera crew follow you everywhere and not effect your life. And when a cinéma vérité documentary is as polished as American Teen, you have to assume that the interference was considerable.

For instance, many dialog scenes are covered from multiple setups, cutting back and forth between close-ups of the people involved. One person recording real life with a video camera isn’t going to get that. One character commits a relatively serious crime on screen, even looking into and talking to the camera as she does it. A scene of a couple in a restaurant includes a quick shot of their legs beneath the table. Text messages seem remarkably well-spelled.

And the story arcs, especially Colin’s, seem incredibly well-structured. Maybe Burstein followed lots of kids, then selected these four for the best story lines. Maybe she’s just an incredibly talented editor who can put real-life events into a Hollywood-style structure (no maybe there, actually; the movie proves she’s a talented editor). Or maybe she just got lucky.

Whatever your concerns of reality and documentaries, however, American Teen offers an insightful and entertaining view of high school society in the early 21st century.

What’s Screening: August 15-21

Trumbo, Lumiere, Shattuck, opens Friday. Trumbo walks a fine line between performance art and documentary. Like any conventional showbiz biodoc, it delivers plenty of film clips, old photos, home movies, and interview clips of people close to the subject. But it also spends much of its time on famous actors (Joan Allen, Michael Douglas, Paul Giamatti, and Donald Sutherland among them), reciting Trumbo’s own words against a black backdrop. The mix works, in large part because blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo was a great writer as well as a great American, who stood up to and defied a paranoia that threatened to destroy the country’s ideals. This film makes you wonder if what you would do in that situation. Read my full review.

The Man Named Pearl in Person, Kabuki, Friday, 7:00; Rafael, Saturday, 6:45; Elmwood, Sunday, 1:00 & 3:15. Pearl Fryar, the subject of the documentary A Man Named Pearl, will make personal appearances this weekend at three theaters showing the film (which I haven’t seen). The Elmwood screenings will benefit the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden.

Judge and the General filmmakers in Person, Rafael, Sunday, 7:00. Director Elizabeth Farnsworth and Editor Blair Gershkow will be on hand for this screening of The Judge and the General.

Harakiri, Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 8:55. Absolutely the best samurai film not made by Akira Kurosawa. A samurai (Kurosawa regular Tatsuya Nakadai) comes to a fort and asks permission to kill himself, then tells a harrowing tale of poverty made unbearable by the strict samurai code. Director Masaki Kobayashi had no love for feudal Japan’s social structure, which he shows as cruel, arrogant, and hypocritical. Part of the PFA’s Celebration of Widescreen.

Last Year at Marienbad, Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 7:00. I saw Last Year at Marienbad once, in college, a long time ago. The teachers didn’t tell us what to expect, they just gathered several classes together in the auditorium and screened this “important film.” I found it deathly boring. We all did. One friend said it needed a pie fight. The teachers were shocked at our response. Perhaps it’s time for me to give it a second chance. Another part of the PFA’s Celebration of Widescreen.

Marilyn Monroe double bill: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes & How to Marry a Millionaire, Castro, Tuesday. Howard Hawks’ musical battle of the sexes, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, contains a handful of wonderful dance numbers and some good comic moments, but there are too many weak scenes to wholeheartedly recommend it. The real surprise is in the stars. Gentlemen helped turn Marilyn Monroe into a major name, yet co-star Jane Russell blows her out of the water. In this film, at least, Russell is funnier and sexier. How to Marry a Millionaire:, a lavish 1953 romantic comedy, fails to be romantic nor funny, despite the talents of Lauren Bacall, Betty Grable, and Marilyn Monroe (who had only just achieved star status). But How to Marry a Millionaire was one of the first two films shot in Cinemascope, and the first with an intimate, contemporary, character-and-dialog driven story. That alone gives it historical interest.

Lawrence of Arabia, Pacific Film Archive, Sunday, 3:30. Yes, I’ve called Lawrence of Arabia one of the greatest films ever made, yet I’m only giving it a B here. That’s because you can’t get the true Lawrence experience watching it in 35mm on the PFA’s modest screen. 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. If you missed last month’s 70mm screening at the Castro, this is better than nothing.

Steamboat Bill, Jr., Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 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 an 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. Accompanied by Greg Pane on piano.

Dead Man, Red Vic, Tuesday and Wednesday. A very different type of western. The plot, concerning a timid accountant from Cleveland (Johnny Depp) who becomes a wanted outlaw within a day of getting off the train, sounds like a Bob Hope comedy. But Dead Man was written and directed by Jim Jarmusch, which by definition makes it a very weird flick. And it earns its weirdness with the quirky humor and strange occurrences we associate with Jarmusch. The supporting cast includes John Hurt, Gabriel Byrne, and Robert Mitchum.

The Princess Bride, Parkway, Thursday, 9:15. William Goldman’s enchanting and funny fairy tale dances magically along that thin line between parody and the real thing. There’s no funnier swordfight anywhere. A benefit for WOKAI.

DOUBLE BILL: Horsefeathers & Charlie Chan at the Opera, Stanford, Friday. Horsefeathers brings the Marx Brothers to college, where they major in puns, pranks, and chasing Thelma Todd. One of their best films, and the only one where all four get to perform their own variation of the same song—each sillier than the last. Charlie Chan at the Opera is a pretty standard B picture mystery of the sort they cranked out in the 30s and 40s (although fans of the series say it’s the best). But it’s historically fascinating in the way it’s both shockingly racist by modern standards (the Chinese-American hero is played by a white man in heavy makeup) and way ahead of its time (the hero is, after all, Chinese-American).