The Mill Valley Film Festival continues through the week. My Mill Valley recommendations and warnings are at the end of this newsletter.
A Fort Apache, Pacific Film Archive, Sunday, 6:00. Even though it’s told entirely from the white man’s view, the first and best film in John Ford’s cavalry trilogy leaves no doubt who the victims were in the western conquest. Very loosely inspired by the Battle of Little Bighorn (AKA Custer’s Last Stand), it tells the story of a regiment doomed by an incompetent and bigoted commanding officer. In one of his few unsympathetic parts, Henry Fonda plays the arrogant, by-the-book colonel whose contempt for the Apaches leads to war, and then to disaster. (He doesn’t like the Irish–Ford’s own ethnic group–much, either)., John Wayne plays his second-in-command, and the story’s the open-minded man of reason. I can’t look at Wayne’s face in the final scene at not think of Colin Powell at the United Nations. Co-starring Monument Valley. Part of the series An Army of Phantoms: American Cinema and the Cold War.
B Frankenstein (1931 version), Castro, Sunday. Newly restored; 35mm print. Dr. Frankenstein did more than create a monster. He turned James Whale into a top director and Boris Karloff into a major star (no mean feat since Karloff neither spoke in the film nor received screen credit). Several individual scenes are masterpieces of mood, horror, and crossed sympathies, but there’s so little story that the movie feels like a warm-up for the infinitely superior sequel, Bride of Frankenstein. On a double bill with The Spirit of the Beehive, which is appropriate because that atmospheric work from 1973 Spain centers on a little girl’s reaction to seeing Frankenstein. I haven’t seen Spirit of the Beehive in years, so I’m not giving it a grade.
A The Bride of Frankenstein, Cerrito, Thursday, 7:00. And speaking of that superior sequel….You spend more time scared for the monster than of it in James Whales’ masterpiece. Boris Karloff plays him as a child in a too-large body, the ultimate outcast torn between his need for love and his anger at the society that’s rejected him. If the blind hermit sequence doesn’t bring tears, you’re either dead, too cynical, or have seen Young Frankenstein’s brilliant parody once too often. With Colin Clive as the not-so-good doctor, Ernest Thesiger as a delightfully over-the-top even madder scientist, and Elsa Lanchester as both Mary Shelley and the monster’s mate (although, technically speaking, Valerie Hobson is the real Bride of Frankenstein).
B Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Castro, Friday. Tim Burton’s first feature revels in its own silliness. Pee-Wee Herman, before children’s television and indecent exposure, is a strange, almost neurotically innocent creature. The movie is uneven, and most of the jokes are extremely dumb, but the oddball charm cannot be denied. Besides, the last sequence, reworking the plot as a Hollywood action flick, is alone worth the price of admission. On a Burton double-bill with Beetlejuice, which I’ve never seen.
C+ The Black Cat, Stanford, Friday through Sunday. Not all Universal horror films were carefully crafted by artists like James Whale. Low-budget auteur Edgar G. Ulmer threw this quickie together for very little money, and it looks it. But this silly story of revenge, lost honeymooners, a very modern spooky castle, and fear of cats offers a good share of laughs, some of them intentional. But why did Universal pick a cheapie like this for the first pairing of its two biggest horror stars–Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi? On a double bill with the 1932 version of The M\ummy, which I haven’t seen in a very long time.
C- Gone With the Wind, Alameda, Tuesday & Wednesday; Kabuki & various CineMark Theaters, Wednesday. I love 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 depends on assumptions of white masters and black slaves as the natural order. 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.
A- Moonrise Kingdom, Castro, Monday and Tuesday. Wes Anderson at his most playful. Also at his sweetest and funniest. Two pre-teens in love run away–disrupting everything on the small New England island where the story is set. While the fantasy of young love makes you feel all warm and fuzzy inside, the adult reaction keeps you laughing–in large part because the main adults are played by major stars clearly enjoying a chance to clown around. They include Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, and, best of all, Tilda Swinton as "Social Services."
A The Central Park Five, Rafael, Saturday, 3:30; Monday, 3:15. In 1989, a white woman was brutally raped and left for dead in Central Park. NewYork’s finest arrested five black and Puerto Rican teenage boys, all of whom confessed under police interrogation, even though there was no physical evidence linking them to the crime and considerable evidence for their innocence. Ken Burns sets aside his usual historical style to examine this far more recent story of five young men convicted of a horrible crime that they did not commit. Most Ken Burns documentaries help us understand how we, as Americans, got where we are. This one shows us exactly where that is.
B Last Man on Earth, Sequoia, Tuesday, 9:30; Rafael, Thursday, 7:15. For the first half of this unclassifiable Italian feature, the aliens arriving on Earth are just background noise. The film is far more concerned with Luca (Gabriele Spinelli), a repressed waiter who can barely talk to his co-workers, and spies on an attractive female neighbor. Then the aliens start interacting with the Earthlings and things get really weird. The first two scenes lead you to believe that you’re about to watch a droll and very funny dark comedy, but the picture is serious to its core–examining homophobia and misogyny, and with one very disturbingly violent scene. All these conflicting styles and approaches never really come together as a whole. But the good scenes, and there are many, outweigh the weak ones.
C Jayne Mansfield’s Car, Rafael, Sunday, 6:30. This southern gothic about the long-range mental effects of war provides little more than a chance to watch great actors struggle with a shallow script. Robert Duvall stars as Jim Caldwell, the aged, stern, remote, and possibly loving patriarch of a prosperous, small-town Alabama family. Two of his three sons, deep into middle age, still live with him–one of them with a wife and son. Then Jim’s ex-wife dies, and her second husband and his grown children arrive with mommy’s body in tow for a culture clash funeral. It’s like Death at a Funeral without the laughs. Thornton wanted to make a great drama about war and the 1960s (the film is set in 1969), but he didn’t succeed. Sold out; rush tickets will be available at the theater.
Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope, Century Cinema, Monday, 5:00. If this was the version I saw in 1977 (and still have on Laserdisc), I’d give it an A. Maybe even an A+. Along with Adventures of Robin Hood and Raiders of the Lost Ark, it stands amongst the best turn-off-the-brain action movies ever made. But as I have not seen the new "enhanced" version, I’m not giving it a grade. Sold out; rush tickets will be available at the theater.