What’s Screening: September 26-October 2

What do jazz, marijuana, and the family problems of Asian Americans have in common? (And you thought it was going to be easy.) Excellent films on all three of those subjects open for all-too-limited runs open today. In fact, everything’s good–very good–in this week’s line-up.

Oh, yes, and the Mill Valley Film Festival opens Thursday night. You can read my initial report and my capsule reviews of six of the films screening. (Two smaller festivals also run this week.)

A Thousand Years Of Good Prayers, Clay, opens Friday. Wayne Wang triumphs in his return to Chinese-American subject matter. Wang and writer Yiyun Lee let the drama build slowly in this story of a Chinese father visiting his now-American daughter after her recent divorce. But there’s more separating them than culture and an ocean. The sort of wonderful story that Hollywood would just mess up, but that video technology makes economically feasible outside of Hollywood. Read my full review.

Anita O’Day – Life of a Jazz Singer, Kabuki, opens Friday. People don’t recognize the name Anita O’Day the way they do Billie Holiday or Ella Fitzgerald, but as a jazz vocalist she’s arguably in their class. She possessed a beautiful voice, a unique and expressive way of making familiar lyrics her own, and a phenomenal sense of rhythm and pacing. Filmmakers Robbie Cavolina and Ian McCrudden provide you with a great introduction, wisely concentrating on the music rather than her bad marriages and drug addictions. The movie left me wanting to buy some Anita O’Day recordings; I guess it did its job. Read my full review.

Humboldt County, Lumiere, Shattuck, opens Friday. Movies that start as broad comedies and turn serious seldom work, yet first-time writers/directors Darren Grodsky and Danny Jacobs pull it off beautifully in Humboldt County. They start their film as a hysterically funny fish-out-of-water comedy about an awkwardly shy medical student (Jeremy Strong) dropped into a family of northern California backwoods pot farmers. But as we realize what paranoia is doing to this warm, loving, and almost constantly stoned bunch, the film gets serious. Humboldt County pays loving yet clear-eyed tribute to an unusual lifestyle. Read my full review.

Berkeley Video & Film Festival, Shattuck, Friday through Sunday. This three-day festival of extremely independent cinema has an interesting ticket policy. A $13 ticket buys you entry for an entire day. On Saturday, that’s from 1:00pm to nearly midnight…with, I’m glad to say, some modest intermissions.

Romeo and Juliet (1968), Castro, Thursday. Franco Zeffirelli’s version of Shakespeare’s popular romantic tragedy changed forever how filmmakers approached the Bard–and changed it for the better. Beautiful, violent, funny, sad, and lusciously romantic, it makes the 400-year-old play new and immediately exciting. Zeffirelli’s decision to cast actual teenagers in the leading roles was controversial at the time, but is absolutely the right thing to do. On a double bill with Zeffirelli’s The Taming of the Shrew (the one staring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor), as part of the Castro’s tribute to Composer Nino Rota.

Iranian Film Festival, San Francisco Art Institute, Saturday and Sunday. A decade or so ago, Iranian films like Children of Heaven were an art-house rage, and deservedly so. Does Iran still make movies that good? You can find out this weekend when this brand new festival (“First Annual,” according to the announcement) unspools.

Singin’ in the Rain, Lark, Sunday, 4:00. In 1952, the late twenties seemed like a fond memory of an innocent time, and nostalgia was a large part of Singin’ in the Rain’s original appeal. The nostalgia is gone now, and we can clearly see this movie for what it is: the greatest musical ever filmed, and perhaps the best work of pure escapist entertainment to ever come out of Hollywood. Take out the songs, and you still have one of the best comedies of the 1950’s, and the funniest movie Hollywood ever made about itself. But take out the songs, and you take out the best part.

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Cerrito, Saturday, 6:00; Sunday, 5:00. Three down-on-their-luck Yankees (Humphrey Bogart, Tim Holt, and the director’s father, Walter Huston) prospect for gold in Mexico. They find and stake out a profitable mine before discovering that they don’t really trust each other. Writer/director John Huston, working from B. Traven’s novel, turned a rousing adventure story into a morality play about the corruption of greed. One of the all-time greats. Another Cerrito Classic.

Raging Bull, UA Berkeley, Thursday, 8:00. Martin Scorsese put a cap on 70’s cinema with this study of boxer Jake La Motta. It isn’t an easy film to watch; the experience is not unlike a good pummeling, but it’s absolutely worth it.

Midnight Movie: Blade Runner, Piedmont, Friday and Saturday nights. Based on Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Blade Runner remains surprisingly thoughtful for ’80’s sci-fi–especially of the big budget variety. It ponders questions about the nature of humanity and our ability to objectify people when it suits our needs. Yet it never preaches. The script’s hazy at times; I never did figure out some of the connections, and a couple of important things happen at ridiculously convenient times. But art direction and music alone would make it a masterpiece. I’ve written more on this film.