The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival continues through the week. I’ve placed my Festival capsules below the Goyish ones.
A- Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Bridge, Thursday, 7:00. Corrupt political bosses appoint a naive, young idealist (James Stewart) senator because they think he’s stupid. The second and best film in Frank Capra’s common-man trilogy, Mr. Smith creeks a bit with patriotic corniness today, and seems almost as naive as its protagonist. But it has moments–Stewart’s speech about how “history is too important to be left in school books,” for instance–that can still bring a lump to your throat. And it’s just plain entertaining. Admission only 30 cents to celebrate Bridge Theater’s 73rd anniversary.
A Airplane!, Castro, Friday. They’re flying on instruments, blowing the autopilot, and possibly enjoying gladiator movies. So win one for the Zipper, but whatever you do, don’t call him "Shirley." Airplane! throws jokes like confetti–carelessly tossing out vast quantities of them so that some might hit their target. There’s no logical reason why a movie this silly can be so satisfying, but then logic never was part of the Airplane! formula. I’d be hard-pressed to name another post-silent feature-length comedy with such a high laugh-to-minute ratio. On a double bill with Zero Hour!, the action movie that inspired the funny one.
A Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Lumiere, starts Friday. Bump your coconuts 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. After Airplane!, the funniest film of the 1970s—and the 1070s. With a new short subject, “Terry Gilliam’s Lost Animations.” New digital restoration.
A+ Notorious, Stanford, Saturday through Tuesday. One of Hitchcock’s best. In order to prove her patriotism, scandal-ridden Ingrid Bergman seduces, beds, and marries Claude Rains’ Nazi industrialist, while true love Cary Grant grimly watches. Grant sent her on this deadly and humiliating mission, and she literally sleeps with the enemy on his orders. He reacts with blind jealousy. The Nazi, on the other hand, appears to truly love her. Sexy, romantic, thought-provoking, and scary enough to shorten your fingernails. I discuss the film more deeply in my Blu-ray Review (although it’s much more fun on the big screen at the Stanford). On a double bill with Indiscreet.
B Cabaret, Kabuki, Wednesday, Back in the spring of 1973, I was angry (but not surprised) when the obviously commercial Godfather beat Bob Fosse’s Weimar-era musical for the Best Picture Oscar. Time proved me wrong, and while I wouldn’t today put Cabaret in the same class as The Godfather, it’s still a dazzling piece of style.
B The Host, SFMOMA, Thursday, 7:00. A barely-functional family fights an uncaring government and a giant mutant carnivore, and it’s hard to say which is the scarier threat. I didn’t find this quite the masterpiece others saw–the political points are obvious, the third act gets confusing, and the big finale fails to satisfy. But director/co-writer Joon-ho Bong succeeds where it counts: He makes you care about the characters and scares you out of your seat. Much of the credit goes to the talented computer animators at San Francisco’s own The Orphanage, who brought the monster to life.
B+ Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present, Roxie, Friday through Tuesday. I’ve never seen the point of performance art (as opposed to the performing arts, which I love), but Matthew Akers’ documentary on this particular performing artist won me over. It follows Abramovic’s preparations and presentation of a major show at MOMA, with sidelines into her past life and work. She’s a fascinating person, filled with life, devoted to her work, humane, empathetic, and sexy as all hell (at 63). For her art, she puts herself through more physical torture than a ballerina or a stunt double. For this show, she sat for many hours a day, not saying a word and barely moving, as museum patrons sat down across from her and looked into her eyes for a few minutes. Often, they ended up crying.
B Farewell, My Queen, Albany, Aquarius, opens Friday. What was Versailles like in the final days of the French monarchy? Was the court panicked? In denial? Did anyone realize that they would soon lose their heads? Benoît Jacquot creates an answer to these questions in this small yet visually impressive drama set in the French court in July of 1789. Although seriously marred by an uninteresting central character, Farewell, My Queen gives us a peak into a different world–a beautiful palace in which the realities of normal people seldom intrude. But it is utterly dependent on a bigger world that it thinks it controls, and it can’t last forever. I wish this picture had run longer. Read my full review.
B+ Under African Skies, Castro, Saturday, 2:05. You can find plenty of political music documentaries, but few that examine both sides of a difficult controversy. This doc, which examines the making of Paul Simon’s hit Graceland, and the controversy over Simon’s breaking the South African cultural boycott of the time, is the exception. Structured around a friendly 2011 chat between Simon and Artists Against Apartheid Founder Dali Tambo, it asks whether it was right for Simon to have recorded music in South Africa when he did, and doesn’t come down with an easy answer. It mixes the politics vs. art issues with more conventional making-of footage–jam sessions, mixing, and so on. But it left me, like so many political musical documentaries do, wishing they had included more concert footage; you seldom get to hear a song from beginning to end.
B Arab Labor Season 3, Castro, Sunday, 6:45. I loved the first season of this hit Israeli sitcom, as well as the three episodes I’ve seen from season 2. But I can’t be quite as enthusiastic about this year’s subset of season 3. The humor and satire hit home, but rarely with the intensity of earlier episodes. As usual, Arab-Israeli journalist Amjad tries desperately to fit into a society that rejects him. This time, he ends up on a reality TV show and becomes a celebrity. But the nature of his celebrity keeps changing. One day he’ll be a hero to the Jews and a pariah for the Arabs, and the next day the other way around. With much of the satire aimed at the obvious target of celebrity culture, the bite gets lessoned. It’s still funny, and still gives us a flavor of the Arab-Israeli experience, but the show seems to be running out of steam.
C+ The Day I Saw Your Heart, Castro, Saturday, 6:55. Justine, an X-Ray technician and aspiring artist, hates her sixtyish father. He’s critical, cruel, and so emotionally distant that he can’t get excited by his much younger third wife’s pregnancy. Neither can Justine, who doesn’t want another child raised by that monster. He also has a habit of befriending her boyfriends as soon as she breaks up with them. Then, in the course of her work, she discovers that he’s got a heart condition.The Day I Saw Your Heart starts as comedy and ends as drama, but works only moderately as either. Justine herself is a reasonably interesting character, and well played by Mélanie Laurent, but everyone else seems only a foil for her reactions.