What’s Screening: November 27 – December 3

A Modern Times, Rafael, Sunday, noon. Leave it to Charlie Chaplin to call an moderntimes extremely anachronistic movie Modern Times. Why anachronistic? Because it’s a mostly silent picture (with a recorded score) made years after everyone else had started talking. Why Modern Times? Because it’s about assembly lines, mechanization, and the depression. Chaplin’s tramp moves from job to job and jail to jail as he tries to better his condition and that of an underage fugitive (Paulette Goddard, his future wife and the best leading lady of his career). Free

C- Oh My God, Lumiere & Shattuck, opens Friday. This documentary on religious attitudes has its interesting moments–enough to keep it from being a complete loss. There are times, especially when filmmaker Peter Rodger takes his camera to parts of the world where religious conflict has turned violent, that the drama of his subject overshadows the clumsiness of his approach. But a lack of focus, overwhelming music, some poor choices of interview subjects, and too strong a focus on Rodger himself, all but sinks Oh My God.

A+ Double Bill: North by Northwest & To Catch a Thief, Stanford, Friday & Saturday. The A is for Alfred Hitchcock’s light masterpiece,nbnw North by Northwest. Cary Grant plays an unusually suave and witty everyman mistaken by evil foreign spies for a crack American agent, and by police for a murderer. And so he must escape almost certain death again and again while chased from New York to Mount Rushmore. On the bright side, he gets to spend some quality time with a very glamorous Eva Marie Saint; danger has its rewards. Not as thoughtful as Rear Window or Notorious, but more entertaining than both of them combined. Catch a Thief is more like a vacation on the Riviera than the tight and scary thriller one expects from the master of suspense. Not his best work by a long shot, but it has a few good scenes and thus sufficient fun.

A Double Bill: Double Indemnity & All About Eve, Stanford, Tuesday through Thursday. In Double Indemnity, rich but unhappy (and evil) housewife Barbaradoubleendem Stanwyckh leads insurance salesman Fred MacMurray from adultery to murder. 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. All About Eve explores the sordid ambition behind Broadway’s (and by implication, Hollywood’s) glamour. Anne Baxter plays the title character, an apparently sweet and innocent actress whom aging diva Bette Davis takes under her wing. But Eve isn’t anywhere near as innocent as she appears. Fasten your seatbelts; it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Oh My God?


I should be the perfect audience for Peter Rodger’s documentary. I’m curious and fascinated by comparative religions, and with how every faith creates both humanists and fundamentalists–including atheism.

So it’s with considerable disappointment that I have to report that I didn’t  care for Oh My God? It has its interesting moments–enough to keep it from being a complete loss. There are times, especially when Rodger takes his camera to parts of the world where religious conflict has turned violent, that the drama of his subject overshadows the clumsiness of his approach. Those instances are frequent enough, and good enough, to earn this movie a C-, but nothing higher.

ohmygdThe concept: Rodger travels around the world, camera (and presumably crew) in hand, interviewing scholars, celebrities, and ordinary people about who and what they imagine God to be. This could have made a very good documentary, but it didn’t. Among Rodger’s mistakes:

  • He includes too many interview subjects, and thus gives none of them enough time to really go into detail. Thus, we get a lot of superficial points of view, and very little depth.
  • He put himself at the center of the film. Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock can get away with this because they’re charismatic and funny. Peter Rodger comes off as just some guy.
  • Alexander van Bubenheim’s musical score is overdone and annoying, and sometimes makes it difficult to hear what’s being said.
  • While Rodger includes some fairly important religious leaders, the film lacks any established religious scholars—people like Karen Armstrong. Or any high-profile atheists like Richard Dawkins. Certainly these people would have more interesting views on the subject than Ringo Starr. (All the atheists interviewed make a point of saying that they’re not modern, angry atheists, although Sir Bob Geldof comes off as one.)

Someone might be able to take Rodger’s outtakes and turn them into a good documentary. Unfortunately, Rodger couldn’t.



Few film-going experiences match this one for intensity. And it’s not the intensity of a good horror film or thriller (although it’s more horrible and suspenseful than most of them). This is the intensity of of life at its most relentlessly depressing and hopeless. And yet, Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, manages to find hope. Where there is life, that life can be improved.

True, it carries what may be the most ungainly movie title since The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum at Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade. But like Marat/Sade, it comes with a ready-made abbreviated version. So if you don’t mind, I’ll just call it Precious.

The title character, played by newcomer Gabourey ‘Gabby’ Sidibe, is 16 years preciousold, extremely obese, illiterate, and is pregnant with her second child. And those aren’t her biggest problems. She lives with her bitter, welfare-dependent mother, who abuses her verbally and with physical violence. Her father rapes her regularly, and fathered both children. Her first child has Down syndrome. She escapes into fantasies of glamour and romance. She knows she’s not meant to have any happiness or any sort of future; her mother, who’s jealous that her daughter “stole” her man, reminds of that daily.


The setting is Harlem, in the late 1980’s.

The hope comes when she’s suspended from school and sent to an alternative school, where a single teacher (Paula Patton) helps a very small group of misfits prepare for their GED. Here Precious finds a community, and in the teacher, an authority figure who wants to help her and seems to have the resources to do so.

Another authority figure reaches out to her—a caring social worker played by Mariah Carey. Now, I went to the theater knowing that Carey played this part, and I still didn’t recognize her. Entirely deglamorized, she looked like a normal, moderately attractive woman who didn’t worry much about her appearance when she went to work.

Starting with a character as wretched as they come, Precious takes that character to a point where happiness is possible. But it’s no fairy tale. Don’t expect any happily-ever-after here.

What’s Screening: November 20-26

The Chinese American Film Festival continues through Thursday at the 4-Star.

A+ Double Bill: Top Hat & The Gay Divorcee, Stanford, Friday and Saturday. The Gay Divorcee, on its own, would probably get only a B-. Arguably the first Astaire-Rogers movie (certainly the first where they were the real stars), it’s a flawed entertainment with one great dance number, a few funny lines, and some historical interest. In fact, you could easily mistake The Gay tophatDivorcee for  an inferior rip-off of the very similar but vastly-superior Top Hat. But Top Hat is the rip-off—it just happens to be superior to the original. If escapism is a valid artistic goal, Top Hat is a great work of art. From the perfect clothes that everyone wears so well to the absurd mistaken-identity plot to the art deco set that makes Venice look like a very exclusive water park, everything about Top Hat tells you not to take it seriously. But who needs realism when Fred Astaire dances his way into Ginger Rogers’ heart to four great Irving Berlin tunes (and one mediocre one)? And when the music stops, it’s still a very good comedy.

A Spirited Away, Red Vic, Tuesday. Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece is a beautiful, complex, and occasionally scary tale of a young girl cast into a strange and magical world. The intriguing and imaginative creatures, not to mention the moral dilemmas, are beyond anything that Dorothy ever had to deal with in Oz. I’m not sure if they’ll be screening the dubbed or superior subtitled version.

A+ Rashomon, Castro, Friday and Saturday. I know that I’ve reviewed  Kurosawa’s first masterpiece–the film that opened Japanese cinema to the world and, decades later, introduced me to my favorite filmmaker. But according to a search of my site, I’ve never reviewed it. How could I remember it one way, when the WordPress search engine remembers it differently? I could check Google, but what if its memory contradicts both? If you don’t understand what I’m talking about, you haven’t seen Rashomon, and that’s a real shame. The Castro will screen a newly restored 35mm print.

B The Graduate, Clay, Friday and Saturday, midnight.  Maybe it’s no longer the breakthrough movie it was in 1967, but The Graduate is still a well-made romantic comedy with serious overtones. And, of course, it gets Bay Area geography all wrong.

A+ Raiders of the Lost Ark, Piedmont, Friday and Saturday, midnight.  Steven  Spielberg directed it, and the bad guys are Nazis, but it’s as far from Schindler’s List as a great movie can get. What else can I say? If you object to mindless, escapist action flicks on principle, you won’t see it anyway. If you don’t, you probably already love it.

A Swing Time, Stanford, Sunday and Monday. If Top Hat is the perfect Astaire-Rogers movie, Swing Time is a close second, and the only other masterpiece in the series. Even by Astaire-Rogers standards, the plot is lightweight: Fred is an incredibly lucky gambler who for private reasons has to limit his winnings. It’s just an excuse for Fred and Ginger to fall in love, fight, break up, fall in love again, and repeat the cycle, all the while singing and dancing. The Dorothy Fields/Jerome Kern songs (“Pick Yourself Up,” “The Way You Look Tonight,” “A Fine Romance”) are among the best of that decade, and the dancing more than does them justice. The “Never Gonna Dance” number is one of the saddest, most sublime dances ever. On a double bill with Yankee Doodle Dandy.

What’s Screening: November 13 – 19

In last week’s newsletter, I failed to mention the Chinese American Film Festival that opened yesterday. It runs through Thursday at the 4-Star. The San Francisco International Animation Festival continues through Sunday. And on that very day, New Italian Cinema opens an eight-day run at the Embarcadero.

B For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism, Roxie, opens Friday; Rafael, Tuesday and Wednesday. The very idea of reviewing a history of film criticism  sounds like a journalistic conflict of interest. It doesn’t helploveofmovies when the documentary begins and ends with the warning that film criticism is a dying profession, and that bloggers who work for free are a large part of the problem. So let me add my disclaimer: I review all sorts of things professionally, but when it comes to movies, I’m another unpaid blogger. For the Love of Movies celebrates the people who have defined our film culture for the last century, telling us what’s worth seeing and defining greatness both in films and filmmakers. It introduces us to great critics living and dead, and gives plenty of time to the multi-decade Pauline Kael/Andrew Sarris feud. It’s informative and entertaining, but unless you’re a real fanatic, it’s hardly essential.

The Three Fathers of Cinema: A Lecture by Walter Murch, Rafael, Saturday, 7:30. Film editor and sound designer (and Marin County resident) Walter Murch will discuss his theories on the evolution of narrative cinema, and the importance of Edison, Flaubert and Beethoven in that evolution. (Yeah, I also would have guessed put Griffith ahead of Beethoven in this particular art.) Another part of the Rafael’s Art of Walter Murch series.

A The Hurt Locker, Red Vic, Wednesday and Thursday. “War is drug.” Writer Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow illustrate that point effectively in this hurtlocker suspense drama about a US Army bomb squad in Iraq. Jeremy Renner is brilliant as the expert who must get up close and defuse the bombs. This is a man who loves his job–especially the danger that goes with it. The other members of the team (Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty) aren’t as happy with the risks, or with the dangers that their partner’s risk-taking forces on them. Although The Hurt Locker is edge-of-the-seat suspenseful, it’s not really a thriller. The scary scenes are set pieces, not connected with the others as a hero works towards his goal, but pieces of the puzzle of this man’s psych.

B+ District 9, Red Vic, Thursday through Saturday. For once, aliens come to Earth and they’re neither conquerors or saviors; they’re a minority ready to be oppressed. District 9 is a number of things. It’s an obvious parable of Apartheid made in South Africa, itself. It’s a science fiction made–very effectively–on an amazingly small budget. It’s a black comedy. But it’s mostly a thriller and an action movie, with touches of the mockumentary. For the most part it works remarkably well, in large part because of a smart script and the extremely well-designed and executed CGI aliens. On the other hand, director/co-writer Neill Blomkamp can’t completely escape the attitudes that color his country’s past, even in a film that confronts them. The movie’s Nigerian gangsters come off as a bizarre racial stereotype.

A+ Double Bill: Citizen Kane & The Maltese Falcon, Stanford, Friday and Saturday. 1941 saw the release of two great films by first-time directors. I discuss Citizen Kane below (the Castro is showing it later in the week).  Dashiell Hammett’s novel, The Maltese Falcon, had been filmed twice before, citizenkanebut screenwriter and first-time director John Huston did it right with the perfect cast and a screenplay that sticks almost word-for-word to the book. The ultimate Hammett picture, the second-best directorial debut of 1941, an important precursor to film noir, and perhaps the most entertaining detective movie ever made.

A+ Citizen Kane, Castro, Tuesday. How does a movie survive a half-century  reputation as the Greatest Film Ever Made? By being really, really good. True, there are films more insightful about the human condition, pictures more dazzling in their technique, and movies more fun. But I’d be hard pressed to name many this insightful that are also this dazzling and fun. Now I’ll identify Rosebud: It’s a McGuffin. On the double bill with The Magnificent Ambersens, which if memory serves is another excellent movie.

A+ The Godfather & The Godfather Part II, Castro, Friday and Saturday. Francis Coppola, taking the job simply because he needed the money, turned Mario Puzo’s potboiler into the Great American Crime Epic. Marlon Brando maygodfather have top billing, but Al Pacino owns the film (and became a star) as Michael Corleone, the respectable son inevitably and reluctantly pulled into a life of crime he doesn’t want but seems most suited for. A masterpiece. And yet the sequel (which is also a prequel) tops it. By juxtaposing the rise of Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando in the first film, a young Robert De Niro here) with the moral fall of his son Michael (Al Pacino again), Puzo and Coppola show us how the decision a seemingly good man makes to care for his family will eventually destroy the very people he loves. Both films have recently undergone a major restoration by the master of the craft, Robert A. Harris.

B The Mark of Zorro (1920), Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. This 1920 adventure flick is where it all began. Douglas Fairbanks bought the rights to a then-recent novel, projected his already-famous athletic comic hero into a romanticized past, grabbed a sword, and invented the movie swashbuckler. There are better Zorro movies (including Fairbanks’ sequel, Don Q, Son of Zorro), but no other catches the birth of a genre. With piano accompaniment by Judy Rosenberg.

B The Mark of Zorro (1940), Stanford, Sunday and Monday. After watching the original in Niles Saturday night, you can cross the Bay and watch the better remake on Sunday. Antonio Banderas wasn’t the first ridiculously handsome face to don a mask and save the peasants of Spanish California. Tyrone Power made the role his own in the second and best movie to actually follow Johnston McCulley’s original novel. Power, who was bisexual in real life, plays Don Diego as an effeminate fop, and his masked alter ego as dashing masculinity. The movie is witty, fun, politically progressive, and includes one of the best sword fights ever to kill off Basil Rathbone. On a double bill with The Prisoner of Zenda.

A+ Raiders of the Lost Ark, Clay, Friday and Saturday, midnight.raiderslostark Steven Spielberg directed it, and the bad guys are Nazis, but it’s as far from Schindler’s List as a great movie can get. What else can I say? If you object to mindless, escapist action flicks on principle, you won’t see it anyway. If you don’t, you probably already love it.

A The Conversation, Rafael, Friday, 7:00. Francis Coppola’s low-budget “personal” film, made between Godfathers I and II, is almost as good as the two epics that sandwich it. The story of a professional voyeur, and therefore, indirectly, a story about filmmaking, The Conversation concerns one Harry Caul (Gene Hackman), a professional snoop who bugs people’s private conversation for a living. Remote and lonely, his emotional armor begins to crack when he suspects that his work is about to result in murder. Walter Murch’s sound mix is one of the best ever, exposing us to layers of meaning within the titular recorded discussion. Part of the Rafael’s Art of Walter Murch series.

A Touch of Evil, Rafael, Monday, 7:00. Orson Welles’ film noir classic, and one of his few Hollywood studio features. He lacked the freedom he found in Europe, but the bigger budget–and perhaps even the studio oversight–resulted in one of his best. As a corrupt border-town sheriff, Welles makes a bloated, scary, yet strangely sympathetic villain. Janet Leigh is a lovely and effective damsel in distress (although Psycho apparently didn’t teach her to stay away from seedy motels). As the hero, a brilliant Mexican detective, Charlton Heston is…well, he’s miscast, but not as badly as some people say. Film and sound editor Walter Murch wasn’t part of the film’s original post-production team, but oversaw it’s restoration, which qualifies this as part of the Rafael’s Art of Walter Murch series.

A Spirited Away, Piedmont, Friday and Saturday, midnight. Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece is a beautiful, complex, and occasionally scary tale of a young girl cast into a strange and magical world. The intriguing and imaginative creatures, not to mention the moral dilemmas, are beyond anything that Dorothy never had to deal with in Oz. I don’t know if this will be the dubbed of subtitled version.

B- Foreign Correspondent, Stanford, Tuesday through Thursday. Not one of Hitchcock’s best, but fun, with a couple of great Hitchcockian setpieces. It’s also an anti-Nazi film from a time when such a thing was still controversial in America (it was only Hitchcock’s second American film, made at a time when his native England was fighting alone for its life).

What’s Screening: November 6 – 12

The 3rd I South Asian Film Festival continues through Thursday. The San Francisco International Animation Festival opens Wednesday for a five-day run.

A- Skin, Clay, Shattuck, Guild, Rafael, opens Friday. Sandra Laing (an actual, living person, played here by Sophie Okonedo) was born to white parents in South Africa in 1955, but by all appearances was what the apartheid system called colored (mixed-race). Needless to say, she had difficulty finding a place to fit in. Screenwriter Helen Crawley and director Anthony Fabian do an admirable job compressing a story that spans nearly four decades into a running time of less than two hours, without making it feel rushed or episodic. But the real credit for Skin goes to Okonedo, who carries the film as if she was born for the part.

A Manhattan, Rafael, Sunday, 7:00. Made immediately after Annie Hall,   Manhattan doesn’t measure up to its predecessor, but it’s still one of Woody Allen’s best. A group of New Yorkers fall in and out of love, cheat on their significant others, and try to justify their actions, all in glorious widescreen black and white and accompanied by Gershwin. In light of Allen’s personal history since Manhattan was made, his character’s relationship with a 17-year-old girl feels both unsettling and more revealing than he originally intended. Preceded by a lecture on the history of film formats by Rob Hummel.

B+ Dog Day AfternoonCastro, Thursday. Two likeable but incompetent robbers (Al Pacino and John Cazale, both fresh from Godfather II) try to hold up a bank in one those rare comedies based on a real-life incident. The result is touching, tragic, and very funny. On a double bill with Scarecrow, which I liked in 1973 but scarcely remember, as part of the Castro’s four-day tribute to early Pacino.

A Spirited Away, Clay, Friday and Saturday, midnight. Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpiece is a beautiful, complex, and occasionally scary tale of a young girl cast into a strange and magical world. The intriguing and imaginative creatures, not to mention the moral dilemmas, are beyond anything that Dorothy never had to deal with in Oz. I don’t know if this will be the dubbed of subtitled version.

B Ninotchka, Stanford, Tuesday through Thursday. Garbo’s first comedy and penultimate film is sweet, charming, romantic, and very funny. It also nails perfectly the absurdities of Communism–still well respected by many Americans in 1939. As Garbo’s character points out, “The last mass trials were a great success. There are going to be fewer but better Russians.” But what else would you expect when Ernst Lubitsch directs a screenplay by Billy Wilder? On a double bill with To Be or Not to Be, which i haven’t seen in a very long time.

Last Year at Marienbad, Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 6:30. 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.