The Mill Valley Film Festival continues through this week and beyond. My festival reviews are at the end of this newsletter.
A+ The Third Man, Castro, Sunday. Classic film noir with an international flavor. An American pulp novelist (Joseph Cotten) arrives in impoverished, divided post-war Vienna to meet up with an old friend who has promised him a much-needed job. But he soon discovers that the friend is both a wanted criminal and newly dead. Or is he? Writer Graham Greene and director Carol Reed place an intriguing mystery inside a world so dark and disillusioned that American noir seems tame by comparison. Then, when the movie is two thirds over, Orson Welles comes onscreen to steal everything in the movie except the sprocket holes. On a double bill with the original, 1947 version of Brighton Rock.
B+ Clash of the Wolves, New People (formerly VIZ Cinema), Sunday, 7:30. Rin Tin Tin was the best non-human movie star the medium ever produced. This German shepherd could emote, follow the action, and do his own stunts. And he was charismatic as all hell. In many ways, Clash of the Wolves was a typical, silly, B western from 1925; you really have to put yourself into the mindset of an eight-year-old boy to enjoy it. But like the best of movie stars, Rin Tin Tin gives a performance that turns a mediocre movie into a fun piece of entertainment. Author Susan Orlean will be on hand to discuss and promote her new book, Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend. Unfortunately, the screening will be off a DVD, with a recorded piano score by Martin Marks. It’s a fine score (I have the DVD), but the last time it played in the Bay Area (a 35mm print at the Rafael in 2005), Jon Mirsalis accompanied the movie on an electric piano, to much better effect.
A- Young Frankenstein, Cerrito, Thursday, 7:00. Once upon a time, Mel Brooks was talented. And never more so than in 1974, when he made this sweet-natured parody and tribute to the Universal horror films of the 1930′s (specifically the first three Frankenstein movies). Gene Wilder wrote the screenplay and stars as the latest doctor to be stuck with the famous name (which he insists on pronouncing “Frankensteen). But blood is fate, and he’s destined to create his own monster. Wilder is supported by some of the funniest actors of the era, including Marty Feldman, Madeline Kahn, Cloris Leachman, and Peter Boyle as the monster. To my knowledge, Young Frankenstein was only the second Hollywood-financed black and white feature made after 1967. A Cerrito Classic.
A Badlands, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 6:30. Terrence Malick’s first feature introduced us to one of the most daring and unique filmmakers to ever work for Hollywood. Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek (very young at the time) play lovers who go on a shockingly casual killing spree; it never seems to occur to them that they’ve done anything wrong. Told through Spacek’s first-person narration, we get the impression at times that it’s little more than a camping trip. Beautifully photographed (of course), Badlands leaves you feeling shocked, confused, sympathetic, and terrified.
A+ Double Bill: Top Hat & The Gay Divorcee, Stanford, Wednesday through next Friday. 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)? The Gay Divorcee, on the other hand, is only B- material. Arguably the first true Astaire-Rogers movie, 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 Divorcee 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.
A Killer of Sheep, Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 9:00. Yes, Virginia, people made great low-budget films before digital video. Shot in 16mm in 1977, Charles Burnett’s neorealistic non-story lets us examine the day-to-day life of an African-American slaughterhouse employee struggling with poverty, family problems, and his own depression. Hauntingly made with a mostly amateur cast, Killer of Sheep takes us into a world most of us know about but have never actually experienced. Part of the series The Outsiders: New Hollywood Cinema in the Seventies.
B- Small, Beautifully Moving Parts, Sequoia, Saturday, 4:00; Rafael, Monday, 9:00. Sarah, a young, very pregnant technology geek (AnnaMargaret Hollyman), sets out to find her estranged, irresponsible living-off-the-grid mother. Sarah’s unique personality and Hollyman’s infectious performance are almost enough to carry this modest trifle. Here is a woman who sits on the toilet, admiring the technology behind a disposable pregnancy test before it gives her the news that will change her life. But she isn’t a stereotypical nerd, either; she mixes well with people and has a loving partner whom the filmmakers fail to flesh out as a character. But as this short (73 minutes) feature reaches its half-way point, you’ll begin to realize that it’s not really going anywhere.
C California State of Mind: The Legacy of Pat Brown, Rafael, Tuesday, 8:00. Do you know who shouldn’t make a documentary about an historically important politician? That politician’s grandchild. Director and narrator Sascha Rice is the granddaughter of former California Governor Pat Brown, the niece of former and current Governor Jerry Brown, and the daughter of one-time candidate-for-governor Kathleen Brown. She’s too close to the subject, and seems reluctant to say much that might be negative about grandpa (although, to her credit, she occasionally does —very briefly). She paints his first term as heroic triumph of late New Dealism, and his second as heroic tragedy in the face of rising conservatism. Every so often, she’ll fast forward to more recent Brown victories and defeats. There’s some interesting history here, but she never looks at things deeply enough to be insightful. With one exception, every Democratic governor we’ve had in this state in the last 70 years has been a Brown (the exception was a Gray); I would have enjoyed some discussion of why.
A+ Raiders of the Lost Ark, Century Cinema – Corte Madera, Monday, 7:00. 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. I’m guessing that they’ll be screening the new digital presentation.