Grapes of wrath in a red desert beneath the colors of the mountain…where samurais search for German gems.
Finally, some festivals! For Your Consideration: A Selection of Oscar Submissions From Around the World runs through the week at the Rafael. And German Gems plays the Castro on Saturday, then heads north to Point Arena for Sunday. You’ll find my capsule reviews for two German Gem films at the bottom of this newsletter.
A Red Desert, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Thursday, 7:30 (two additional shows next week). No one has ever called Michelangelo Antonioni’s study of pollution and madness a thriller, yet it filled me with a sense of foreboding and dread that Alfred Hitchcock seldom matched. Monica Vitti holds the screen as a housewife and mother struggling to hold onto her slipping sanity. It’s no surprise she’s breaking down; her husband manages a large plant that’s spewing poison into the air, water, and ground (Antonioni made absolutely sure that his first color film would not be beautiful). Through her mental deterioration, she plans to open a shop (without any clear idea of what she will sell), flirts with one of her husband’s co-workers (Richard Harris dubbed into Italian), worries about disease, and attends a party that stops just short of an orgy. Carlo Di Palma’s brilliant camerawork adds to the sense of mental isolation; I’ve never seen out-of-focus images used so effectively. A Brand-new 35mm print.
A+ Grapes of Wrath, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Friday, 7:00. No one associates serious social criticism with classic, studio-era Hollywood. Yet this 20th Century-Fox production of John Steinbeck’s flip side of the California dream pulls few punches. The ending may be less shocking than Steinbeck’s original, but as the desperately-poor Joad family moves from Oklahoma to California in their rickety truck, only to find poverty, bigotry, and exploitation, the picture shows us an America where mere survival is a victory of sorts and revolution a logical reaction. Nunnally Johnson produced and wrote the screenplay, and John Ford directed, but a lot of credit must go to studio head Darryl Zanuck for the courage to make a film that exposes the ugly underbelly of American capitalism. Part of an Alameda County Library series on Steinbeck’s novel.
B+ The Colors of the Mountain, Rafael, Sunday, 3:30. On one level, this is a funny tale about adorable boys who love soccer, set against beautiful mountain scenery. On another, and more important level, it’s about the harsh realities of third-world life when caught between violent revolutionaries and an utterly heartless government. At first, Manuel’s life seems good. His family is poor, but not desperately so. They have electricity and running water, and his parents buy him a brand-new soccer ball for his birthday. Then the revolutionaries mine the makeshift soccer field, and soon after that the army arrives. Writer/director Carlos César Arbeláez shows us the effects of political upheaval through the eyes of someone too young to understand what’s happening, but old enough to be horrified. Part of For Your Consideration: A Selection of Oscar Submissions From Around the World.
A+ Double Bill: Sanjuro & Seven Samurai, Film Society/New People Cinema, Thursday. Putting anything on a double bill with the 3½-hour Seven Samurai seems odd, but Sanjuro is short, light, and funny enough to go against something big and heavy. When a masterless swordsman (Toshiro Mifune) reluctantly helps a group of naive young samurai clean up their clan, the result is an action comedy and genre parody that ties with The Hidden Fortress as Kurosawa’s lightest entertainment. See my Kurosawa Diary entry. Seven Samurai earns this double bill’s A+. The basic story–a poor village hires warriors to defend them against bandits–has been retold many times since, but Kurosawa told it first and told it best. A great drama about class differences that’s also a great action movie. See my Kurosawa Diary entry.
Rifftrax Presents Night of the Shorts III: The Search For Schlock, Castro, Thursday, 8:00. Three Mystery Science Theater veterans continue to add snarky—and very funny—commentary to bad movies. Or, in this case, bad educational shorts. The opening night for Sketchfest.. For more on RiffTrax, see RiffTrax Report and RiffTrax Live: Plan 9 from Outer Space.
A Double Bill: Harakiri & Yojimbo, Film Society/New People Cinema, Wednesday. Only Akira Kurosawa had better samurai films than Masahiro Kobayashi’s Harakiri. A samurai (Tatsuya Nakadai) comes to a fort and asks permission to kill himself, then tells a harrowing tale of poverty made unbearable by the strict samurai code. Kobayashi reveals the cruelty, arrogance, and hypocrisy of feudal Japan’s social structure. In Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, a masterless samurai (Toshiro Mifune) wanders into a small town torn apart by a gang war. Disgusted by everyone, he uses his wits and amazing swordsmanship to play the sides against each other. In the hands of Akira Kurosawa, the result is an entertaining action flick, a parody of westerns, and a nihilistic black comedy all rolled into one. Read my Kurosawa Diary entry.
B+ Black Power Mixtape, Castro, Monday. The nature of the civil rights movement changed dramatically in the mid-to-late 1960’s, and this American/Swedish documentary tracks the black power movement from Stokely Carmichael’s heyday until heroin ravaged Harlem. The film’s Swedish origin is something of a gimmick. Most of the footage consists of news footage shot by Swedish crews for Swedish television. Occasionally we get the original narration with English subtitles, but most of the narration comes from recent interviews with African-American activists, and the point of view is definitely theirs. The result is an intriguing and informative overview, if considerably one-sided. Little attention is given to the bad decisions, reverse racism, and raging sexism that warped the movement. Read my full review. On a double bill with the 1973 concert documentary Wattstax, which I haven’t seen since before it was released.
Comedy Short Subject Night, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. The Keaton short, “One Week,” is one of his best (it’s also the second one he made and the first he released). Chaplin’s “One AM" is a strange one—almost a solo performance. I can’t vouch for the other two shorts.
A+ Rear Window, United Artists Berkeley, Thursday, 8:00. Alfred Hitchcock at his absolute best. James Stewart is riveting as a news photographer temporarily confined to his apartment and a wheelchair, amusing himself by watching his neighbors (none of whom he knows) and guessing at the details of their lives. Then he begins to suspect that one of them committed murder. As he and his girlfriend (Grace Kelly) begin to investigate, it slowly begins to dawn on us that they’re getting into some pretty dangerous territory (something they don’t realize until it’s almost too late). Hitchcock uses this story to examine voyeurism, urban alienation, and the institution of marriage, as well as to treat his audience to a great entertainment.
Sweet Smell of Success, Castro, Sunday. It’s been too long since I’ve seen Burt Lancaster’s Broadway noir for me to trust my memory with a wholehearted recommendation. But not by much. Lancaster risked his career by producing this exploration of the seamy side of fame and by playing a truly despicable character. The result, if I recall correctly, is fantastic. Tony Curtis co-stars, from a script by Ernest (North by Northwest) Lehman. On a double bill with The Duellists, which I haven’t seen in an even longer time and don’t recall being all that impressed with.
A+ Casablanca, Stanford, Friday. What can I say? You’ve either already seen it or know you should. Let me just add that no one who worked on Casablanca thought they were making a masterpiece; it was just another movie coming off the Warner assembly line. But somehow, just this once, everything came together perfectly. On a double bill with Lubitsch’s World War II comedy, To Be or Not to Be (not to be confused with the Mel Brooks remake); I haven’t seen this one in a very long time but I remember liking it.
Both films at the Castro on Saturday.
B+ Above Us Only Sky (Über uns das All), 4:30. Writer/director Jan Schomburg gives us a sad yet sexy story about the secrets that separate us from those we love the most. Schomburg spends the first 15 minutes showing us that Martha (Sandra Hüller) is very happily married, even though she can’t help feeling that husband is hiding something. Then, without warning, he commits suicide. She begins to hunt for an explanation, which may make you think that this will turn into a thriller. It doesn’t. The reasons for his mysterious and tragic act take a back seat to the main story–that of a young woman dealing with profound and sudden grief. With frightening swiftness, long before the emotional scars heal, she throws herself headlong into a new relationship with a guy who vaguely reminds her of her late husband. Her new man is nice, intelligent, and sensitive, but he can’t help feeling that she’s hiding something. The ending is a little too upbeat. As near as I could tell, the title is not a reference to John Lennon.
B Westwind, 7:30. Two young women–17-year-old twins–come of age while Communism begins to unravel in this effective but predictable story of forbidden love. East German athletes and extremely close siblings, Doreen and Isabel travel to Hungary to train for international competition. It’s 1988, and Hungary is already considerably looser than East Germany. They meet and flirt with some West German boys, which seems harmless enough even after their supervisor warns them warns them about westerners. But when Doreen falls head over heels in love with one of the boys (it’s mutual), both their future as athletes and the twins’ close relationship is threatened. Screenwriters Ilja Haller and Susann Schimk, and director Robert Thalheim, paint an image of a Communism that feels warm and friendly at first glance, and repressive when you look closer. For instance, the athletic camp they’re staying in looks positively idyllic, but it’s surrounded by a barbed-wire fence (which allows for some Pyramus and Thisbe imagery).