A+ Double Bill Stagecoach (1939) & High Noon, Stanford, Saturday through Tuesday. Two of the best westerns ever made. In Stagecoach, nine very different people must cross dangerous territory in the titular vehicle–a journey that forces them to confront their prejudices as well as angry Apaches. A young, impossibly handsome John Wayne made the leap from B pictures to A-list star with his performance of an escaped convict, but it’s Thomas Mitchell’s alcoholic doctor who really carries the picture. In High Noon, Gary Cooper discovers who his real friends are (just about no one) in Carl Foreman and Fred Zinnemann’s simple fable of courage under fire. Foreman’s last produced screenplay before getting blacklisted, High Noon can be interpreted as a parable to a Hollywood gripped in McCarthyite fear.
B- Avatar, Red Vic, Friday through Monday. Yes, it’s the biggest commercial hit of all time (at least if you ignore a little thing called inflation), and that means you’re expected to either love it passionately or prove your superiority to the fanboys by looking down at it through your nose. Sorry, but I can’t do either. When all things are considered, you have a big, fun, spectacular, technically amazing science fiction adventure that goes on a bit too long and has its political heart in the right (or should I say the left) place. Yes, it’s dependent on clichés, including the one where the white guy saves the indigenous people (to be fair, Schindler’s List has that flaw, too). But it’s fun, amazing to look at, and is the first feature I’ve ever seen that really used 3D to enhance the story. In fact, if the Red Vic was showing Avatar in 3D, I’d give it an A-.
A- Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Pacific Film Archive, Sunday, 7:15. The biggest financial scandal ever (at least at the time) becomes the Great American tragedy in this highly entertaining documentary. Ken Lay, Jeff Skilling, and the rest of the scoundrels are so filled with optimism and faith in their own narrowly-created worldview that their fall becomes inevitable. But the filmmakers never lose sight of the real tragedy–the innocent victims that these hubris-filled businessmen took down with them. Part of the series Brought to Light: Recent Acquisitions to the PFA Collection.
B+ Sparrows, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. Sparrows’ plot feels like the stereotype of a silent film melodrama. An evil miser keeps children imprisoned and enslaved on what’s basically an island in the middle of a swamp. When it’s in his interest to kill them all, sweet and beautiful Molly (who else but Mary Pickford) must lead them to safety. The story is as silly as it sounds, but the photography and tints are so gorgeous, and Pickford is such a delight, that you forgive it all. I’m hoping the Museum screens the same gorgeous print shown at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival four years ago. Judy Rosenberg on piano.
A Spirited Away, United Artists Berkeley, Thursday, 8:00. 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. Unfortunately, I suspect they’ll be screening the dubbed rather than the superior subtitled version.
A+ Some Like It Hot, Rafael, Sunday, noon. Free! Maybe this isn’t, as theAmerican Film Institute called it, the greatest American film comedy yet made. But Billy Wilder’s farce about desperate musicians, vicious gangsters, and straight men in drag definitely belongs in the top 20. And its closing line has never been beat.