Note: I originally listed The Manchurian Candidate as playing at the Cerrito Thursday night. That was an error. They’re showing The Seven Year Itch, which I haven’t seen in decades. They’ll be screening The Manchurian Candidate in September.
On Saturday, the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival closes its Berkeley run at the Roda Theater, and opens its last 3-day segment at the Rafael. My festival mini-reviews are at the bottom of this newsletter.
And Saturday night, the Pacific Film Archive starts a special, free, outdoor series called Summer Cinema on Center Street. For three Saturdays in a row, they’ll project masterworks onto an outside wall of the PFA’s future home in downtown Berkeley. The scheduled masterpieces: The Atomic Brain (this Saturday), Donovan’s Brain (August 11), and The Brain That Wouldn’t Die (August 18). Perhaps they should have called the series Cerebral Summer Cinema on Center Street. All shows start at 7:30 with a pre-show; the movie will start after dusk.
A Mary Poppins Sing-a-Long, Castro, Saturday, 1:00. The best live-action movie Walt Disney ever made, and one of the great all-time children’s pictures. Julie Andrews may have won the Oscar through a sympathy vote, but she really lights up her first movie appearance, managing to upstage Dick Van Dyke and some wonderful special effects. So what if it takes liberties with the books? I have not experienced the sing-a-long version. The movie will be preceded by Blackie Norton’s Paradise Club Band playing “Live Barbary Coast” music. All part of the Castro’s 90th Anniversary Weekend.
A Double Bill: Strangers on a Train & The Crying Game, Castro, Thursday. What a unique and oddly-appropriate double bill! Their titles even rhyme. Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train triumphantly launched the best decade of his career. Whena rich psychopath convinces himself that a moderately-famous athlete has agreed to exchange murders, the athlete finds himself hounded by cops who think he’s killed his wife, and by a psycho who demands the unthinkable. Soon after The Crying Game’s 1992 release, talk about “the big surprise” (one of the most shocking in movie history) overshadowed everything else about the Irish thriller. That’s a pity, since this story–about an IRA operative who’s too decent a human being to be an effective terrorist–carries considerable punch.
A- The Naked Island, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Thursday, 7:30. This 1960, dialog-free Japanese drama –a post-talkie silent film–focuses on a nuclear family living on and farming a tiny island in what appears to be a large and modern harbor. Their life is tough beyond measure. The island doesn’t have enough water for their needs; so several times a day they row to a larger island, fill four large wooden buckets, row back, carry the buckets up a steep incline, and water their crops. Yet they persevere through the seasons and through tragedy. In fact, they persevere through problems that would be much easier if they would buy an outboard motor or build a pulley system–an issue that marred this otherwise moving, atmospheric, and simple tale.
B- Imitation of Life, Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 7:00. As melodrama or straight entertainment, this Fannie Hurst story (inspired by the creation of the Aunt Jemima company) works reasonably well. But if you’re interested in the history of race relations in American culture, you don’t want to miss this one. The story of a long and profitable friendship between two women–one white, one black–was way ahead of it’s time in 1934, even though it’s way behind where we are today. The opening film for the series Universal Pictures: Celebrating 100 Years; the PFA will screen a vault print.
A John Huston Double Bill: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre & Key Largo, Castro, Wednesday. 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. Key Largo, set in a lonely Florida hotel during a hurricane, pits war veteran Bogart against gangster Edward G. 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?
A+ Citizen Kane, Castro, Sunday, 7:30. How does any movie survive a half-century reputation as the Greatest Film Ever Made? By being really, really good. True, there are films more insightful about the human condition, pictures more dazzling in their technique, and movies more fun. But I’d be hard pressed to name many this insightful that are also this dazzling and so much fun. Now I’ll tell you what Rosebud is: It’s a McGuffin. Preceded by a 30-minute concert by David Hegarty on the Castro’s Mighty Wurlitzer Organ, as part of the theater’s 90th Anniversary Weekend.
C- Gone with the Wind, Castro, Sunday, 1:00. 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, and generally just wince. But the racism in Gone with the Wind makes me cringe. The entire story is based on the assumed inferiority of African Americans (the Hayes Office wouldn’t let them say nigger in the dialog, so they say darkies), 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 pretty good, 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. The picture has one thing going for it: It used color far more creatively and effectively than any previous movie. As part of the Castro’s 90th Anniversary Weekend, the epic will be preceded by Blackie Norton’s Paradise Club Band playing “Live Barbary Coast” music.
A The Apartment, Stanford, Saturday through Tuesday. How do you top Some Like It Hot? Billy Wilder found the answer in this far more serious comedy about powerful men exploiting both women and their male underlings. Jack Lemmon gave the best of his many great performances as a very small cog in the machinery of a giant, New York-based insurance company. His small desk sits in a sea of other small desks that seems to disappear off the horizon. His strategy for getting ahead? He loans his apartment to company executives—all married men–who use it for private time with their mistresses. With Fred MacMurray as the top exploiter and Shirley MacLane as the woman who Lemmon’s character loves and MacMurray’s character uses. Read my Blu-ray review. On a double bill with Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which I saw long ago and didn’t care for.
A- Live Theater on the Big Screen: Frankenstein, Elmwood, Tuesday, 7:00. Finally, something directed by Danny Boyle that I actually liked! Playwright Nick Dear starts his adaptation with the monster’s lonely birth, putting the focus on the creature. This poor child-man’s journey, and his inevitable clash with his arrogant creator, make up the heart of the play. A lot of philosophy and religion get discussed, but it never feels forced. In some screenings, Jonny Lee Miller plays the monster and Benedict Cumberbatch plays Frankenstein. In others, they switch roles (I saw it with Cumberbatch as the monster). For more on this, see Live Theater on the Big Screen and Frankenstein.
A Hava Nagila (The Movie), Rafael, Saturday, 4:20. Hava Nagila, a documentary about the famous tune, doesn’t take itself too seriously. Even the titles that introduce interview subjects make casual jokes. This fun and joyful movie about a fun and joyful song still manages to inform audiences as well as any more serious doc. The tune was born in Chasidic Eastern Europe as a nigun (a wordless song used in prayer), and the happy lyrics were added by an early Zionist–although which early Zionist is a matter of debate. Hava Nagila never lost its Jewish identity, even as it became a major hit for Harry Belafonte and a tune known all around the world. This rare documentary will have you laughing, clapping, and tapping your feet, and give you new appreciation of a tune you’ve heard all of your life. Read my full report.
B+ Under African Skies, Rafael, 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 album 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 other such 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, Rafael, Sunday, 4:50. I loved the first season of this hit Israeli sitcom, as well as the three episodes I saw of season 2. But I didn’t enjoy this year’s subset of season 3 anywhere near as much. 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, Rafael, Saturday, 6:35. Justine, an X-Ray technician and aspiring artist, doesn’t much care for 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 ex-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 well 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.