And the Castro is running a tribute to composer Max Steiner this week. I’m commenting on so many of those movies that I’ve moved them to the end of the newsletter, after the Jewish Film Festival recommendations and warnings.
B+ Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff, Balboa, Friday through Thursday; Rafael, Wednesday and Thursday. Few filmmakers understood color as well as British cinematographer Jack Cardiff. And those who do have Cardiff to thank for it. In the 1940s, with movies like Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes (see below), Cardiff took hold of the bulky and clumsy three-strip Technicolor camera and turned it into a fine paintbrush. Although he continued to do very good work for decades, his results in later years were never again revolutionary. Documentarian Craig doesn’t even pretend to provide a warts-and-all portrait. He clearly worships Cardiff—as do Martin Scorsese, Kirk Douglas, Charlton Heston, and other notables interviewed for this film. Cardiff himself comes off as witty, urbane, dashing, friendly, well-read, and smartly dressed, as well as extremely talented. Read my full review.
A Monty Python and the Holy Grail, UA Berkeley, Thursday, 8:00. Bump your coconuts together and prepare the Holy Hand Grenade, but watch out for the Killer Rabbit (not to mention the Trojan one). The humor is silly and often in very bad taste, and the picture has nothing of substance to say beyond ridiculing the romantic view of medieval Europe. But the Pythons’ first feature with an actual story (well, sort of) keeps you laughing from beginning to end. The funniest film of the 1970s—and the 1070s.
A Touch of Evil, Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 9:15. 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 should have taught her to avoid seedy motels). As the hero, a brilliant Mexican detective, Charlton Heston is…well, he’s miscast, but not as badly as some people say. Part of the series Going South: American Noir in Mexico.
A- The Princess and the Frog, Pacific Film Archive, Thursday, 6:30. Disney Studio returned to hand-drawn animation with startling success with this more modern variation on their “princess” theme. This “princess” is a working-class African American in jazz-age New Orleans, who dreams not of Prince Charming but of owning her own restaurant. On the plus side, you’ve got good jazz, funny shtick, and a good lesson to teach young children—the value of hard work in achieving your dreams (so much better than the usual “Believe in yourself”). The filmmakers carefully, and not altogether successfully, dance around the race issues that would have held the protagonist back in real early 20th century Louisiana. Co-director John Musker will attend the screening, and hopefully answer questions.
A Hitchcock Double Bill: North by Northwest & Strangers on a Train, Stanford, Saturday through next Friday. Alfred Hitchcock’s lightest, most entertaining masterpiece, North by Northwest stars Cary Grant as an unusually suave and witty everyman in trouble with evil foreign spies (who think he’s a crack American agent), and by the police (who think he’s a murderer). On the bright side, he gets to spend some quality time with Eva Marie Saint. Strangers on a Train is one of Hitchcock’s scariest films. A rich, spoiled psychotic killer (the worst kind) convinces himself that a moderately-famous athlete has agreed to exchange murders. The athlete soon finds himself hounded by suspicious cops who think he’s killed his wife and a psycho who thinks the athlete owes him a murder.
A- Throne of Blood, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 6:30. Kurosawa stands Shakespeare on his head with this haunting, noh- and kabuki-inspired loose adaptation of Macbeth.Toshiro Mifune gives an over-the-top but still effective performance as the military officer tempted by his wife (Isuzu Yamada) into murdering his lord. The finale–which is far more democratic than anything Shakespeare ever dared–is one of the great action sequences ever. Read my Kurosawa Diary entry. Part of the series Japanese Divas.
The Last Emperor, Pacific Film Archive, Sunday, 7:00. If I trusted my memory, I would probably give this film an A-. An epic like no other, it follows the life of the last Chinese emperor, Pu Yi, from his ascending the throne as a three-year-old at the beginning of the 20th century until, as an old man, he faces the cultural revolution. What makes Pu Yi such a unique protagonist is his almost complete passivity. He does not make history, but merely allows others—including fascists–to use him as a patsy while they can make it. Part of the series Bernardo Bertolucci: In Search of Mystery.
B+ The Red Shoes, Balboa, Saturday, 4:30; Monday, 9:00. This 1948 Technicolor fable about the sacrifices one makes for art makes a slight story. Luckily, the characters, all fanatically devoted to their art, and all very British, make up for it—at least in the first half. Unfortunately, the final hour weighs down with more melodrama than even a well-acted film can bear. On the other hand—and this is why The Red Shoes holds on to its classic status—the 20-minute ballet at the center is a masterpiece of filmed dance, and no other picture used three-strip Technicolor this expressively. I discuss The Red Shoes in more detail at War and Ballet @ the PFA.
A- 100 Voices: A Journey Home, Oshman Family JCC, Wednesday, 6:15; Roda, Thursday, 6:40. In 2009, documentarians Danny Gold and Matthew Asner followed 100 American cantors as they flew to Poland for a concert tour and a return to their personal and professional roots. The resulting film follows many stories: the art and history of cantorial singing, the long history of Jews in Poland, the Holocaust, and a new, Polish resurgence of interest in Jewish culture. Gold and Asner weave these these into a touching, fascinating, and triumphant garment without ever getting them tangled. I do wish, however, that they’d given more time to pre-WWII Jewish-Polish relations. The movie is filled with beautiful music; some sounds like opera, some like jazz, but all of it is deeply spiritual and unquestionably Jewish.
B+ Mabul (The Flood), Roda Theatre, Sunday, 6:30. The plot is similar to A Serious Man and Sixty Six, but Guy Nattiv’s drama about a Bar Mitzvah in a dysfunctional family couldn’t be more different. Bar Mitzvah boy Yoni sells completed homework to other kids, can’t please the rabbi (you’d think a Bar Mitzvah would be easy for a native Hebrew speaker), and deeply resents his parents—with good reason. His mother is having an affair and his father is an irresponsible pothead. To make matters worse, his extremely autistic brother, who really belongs in an institution, comes to live with them. Nattiv doesn’t leaven the story with humor, or even with much warmth, resulting in a harrowing, merciless look at a family coming apart at the seams. The last act, with a suspenseful climax and a somewhat upbeat ending, feels tacked on.
C+ Next Year in Bombay, Oshman Family JCC, Thursday, 4:00. Did you know there are Jews in India? Not once-British Jews who stayed behind when the Empire collapsed, but people who are racially and ethnically Indian, yet identify themselves as Jews and practice the religion. For too much of this too-short documentary, filmmakers Jonas Parienté, and Mathias Mangin seem content to let us marvel at that very fact. But in its second half, as it looks at a small, Jewish peasant village (seen through the eyes of a young, urban, educated Bombay Jew), and then deals with questions of immigration to Israel, it dips into profound issues of Jewish identity. But it doesn’t give these issues the time they deserve. The festival will precede this 55-minute feature with a 19-minute short, “Starring David.”
A+ Bogie double bill: Casablanca & Treasure of Sierra Madre, Castro, Saturday. What can I say? You’ve either seen Casablanca or know you should. Let me just add that no one who worked on it thought they were making a masterpiece; it was just another entertaining propaganda movie coming off the Warner assembly line. But somehow, just this once, everything came together perfectly. In Treasure of Sierra Madre, three down-on-their-luck gold prospectors (Humphrey Bogart, Tim Holt, and Walter Huston) 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.
White Heat, Castro, Tuesday. In 1949, James Cagney returned to the studio that made him famous for one last gangster movie. But this time, instead of a basically decent guy who has made a few mistakes, he got to play a psycho. But at least he loves his mother. Come to think of it, maybe he loves her a little too much. I’m not giving White Heat a grade because it has been years since I saw it. But I remember liking it very, very much. On a Cagney double bill with Angels with Dirty Faces.
A- Key Largo, Castro, Wednesday. In the 1930’s, movie stars like Edward G. Robinson got to kill punk character actors like Humphrey Bogart, but Bogey was the top star when John Huston made Key Largo in 1948. Set in a lonely Florida hotel during a hurricane, war veteran Bogart faces off against gangster Robinson. Most of the movie is talk, but when Richard Brooks and Huston himself adopt a Maxwell Anderson stage play, and Huston directs a solid and charismatic cast, who needs more than talk? On a Bogart/Becall double-bill with The Big Sleep.
A Double Bill: King Kong (1933 version) & The Searchers, The A goes to King Kong. The first effects-laden adventure film of the sound era still holds up, and not just through Willis O’Brien’s outdated yet still breathtaking special effects. The big ape himself is the stuff of nightmares, utterly terrifying, but also confused, loving, majestic, and ultimately doomed. Pretty good for an 18-inch model covered with rabbit fur. Most fans of John Ford and John Wayne consider The Searcher s their masterpiece. I disagree. It’s visually splendid and has one of Wayne’s greatest performances, but it’s marred by a rambling plot and a very unlikable hero. Besides, color always seemed a handicap for Ford, upsetting his delicate balance between myth and realism.
D+ Gone with the Wind, Castro, Sunday. I have a weakness for big historical epics, but the biggest of them all just leaves me flat. First, there’s the blatant white supremacy. I’m used to racism in old movies, which generally just makes me winch. But Gone with the Wind goes over the top. The entire story is based on the assumed inferiority of African Americans (called darkies in the dialog because the Hayes Office wouldn’t let them use the word nigger), and the presumption that slavery is their natural and rightful place. All that is made worse by the large number of people who even today find this movie’s attitudes acceptable. Leaving racial issues aside, the first part is okay, but boredom sets in after the intermission. In fact, the post-war section is kind of like a slasher flick; x number of characters have to die before the movie ends and you can go home.