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).