In festival news, Cinequest continues through Sunday. Rendez-vous with French Cinema opens today and runs through the week. And CAAMFest, formerly known as the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, opens Thursday.
Also, there’s so much Hitchcock going on this week that I’ve moved all of his films to the end of the newsletter.
B+ Safety Last, California Theatre (San Jose), Friday, 7:00. Harold Lloyd’s iconic image, hanging from a large clock high over a city street, comes from this boy-makes-good-by-risking-his- neck fairytale. Lloyd made better pictures, but even run-of-the-mill Lloyd is damn funny. And once he starts climbing that building, there’s nothing run-of-the-mill about this Lloyd. The laughs–and thrills–don’t stop. Dennis James will accompany both movies on the Wurlitzer organ. Also on the bill: Buster Keaton’s great two-reel short, "Cops." Part of the Cinequest festival.
B West Side Story, Kabuki and various CineMark Theaters, Wednesday. West Side Story swings erratically from glorious brilliance to astonishing ineptitude. The songs and dances–especially the Jerome Robbins-choreographed dances–create a world of violent intensity and eroticism that both carry the story and shine in their own right. I’d be hard-pressed to think of a better choreographed widescreen musical. It also contains magnificent supporting performances by Russ Tamblyn, George Chakiris, and especially Rita Moreno. But the dialog is often stilted and stage-bound, and juvenile lead Richard Beymer is so bad he sinks every scene he’s in. See West Side Story in 70mm for more on the movie.
B+ Paths to Paradise, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. The dapper, suave, very funny, yet today nearly-forgotten Raymond Griffith carries this sophisticated silent comedy, even though top billing went to his leading lady, Betty Compson. As competing crooks, Griffith and Compson share similar goals–they’re each out to steal the same enormous diamond necklace. Griffith seems capable of outsmarting everybody (he never gives himself the same name twice) and does so in various ingenious ways. But be warned: Paths to Paradise isn’t a complete film. The last reel is missing and will probably never be found. Fortunately, the final existing reel kind of works as an abrupt but satisfying ending. With a Koko the clown cartoon and a Charley Chase comedy short. Bruce Loeb will accompany everything on the piano.
A Babe, New Parkway, Friday, 4:00; Saturday, 12:30 (half-past noon). At least among narrative features, Babe is easily the greatest work of vegetarian propaganda in the history of cinema. It’s also a sweet, funny, and charming fairy tale about a pig who wants to become a sheep dog. This Australian import helped audiences and critics recognize character actor James Cromwell’s exceptional talent, and technically broke considerable ground in the category of live-action talking-animal movies. Warning: If you take your young children to this G-rated movie, you may have trouble afterwards getting them to eat bacon.
B- Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Rafael, Sunday, 4:15. The first American animated feature, and one of Walt Disney’s biggest triumphs, really does suffer from the sugary sweetness so often associated with Disney. But the picture is technically astounding and a visual delight. The dwarfs are funny and have distinct–if shallow–personalities. But the title character and her Prince Charming are so dull that you might find yourself rooting for the evil stepmother (who’s actually pretty scary). Newly restored and projected off of a DCP.
A- Chicken Run, Lark, Sunday, 3:00. The Great Escape with chickens, and all made out of clay. The first (and best) feature from the Wallace and Gromit gang has a group of very British chickens and one cocky rooster (Mel Gibson) determined to escape the farm before they’re all turned into pies. Animated in clay, it’s a remarkable feat of ingenuity, skill, and technical savvy. More importantly, it’s hilarious.
A Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Oakland Paramount, Friday, 8:00. 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.
A The Terminator, Castro, Friday. James Cameron’s first hit provides non-stop thrills that keep you on the edge of a heart attack. Arnold Schwarzenegger plays the title character–a heartless machine sent back in time to murder the future mother of the man who will save humanity. Simple, straightforward, and modestly budgeted (three things you can’t say about recent Cameron pictures), The Terminator maintains an internal logic rare in time travel stories. Besides, it offers a now-rare view of our ex-governor’s naked butt. With Linda Hamilton as the killing machine’s intended victim, and Michael Biehn as the man sent back in time to save her. On a double bill with The Outside Man.
A The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly, Alameda, Tuesday & Wednesday. Considering the unethical behavior of the three leads, Sergio Leone’s epic Civil War western should have been called The Bad, the Worse, and the Totally Reprehensible. But morality is relative when armies are slaughtering thousands, and besides, it doesn’t really enter into Leone’s tongue-in-cheek point of view. While the war rages around them, three outlaws battle lawmen, prison guards, and each other for a fortune in stolen gold. Check your scruples at the door and enjoy the double- and triple-crosses, the black comedy, the beautiful Techniscope photography of Spain doubling as the American west, and Ennio Morricone’s legendary score. Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef are fine, but Eli Wallach’s performance as the half-bright, devious Tuco steals the picture.
A Days of Heaven, Castro, Sunday. The story seems a better fit for a 64-minute B noir from the 1940s, but Days of Heaven isn’t about story, and only moderately about character. It’s about time, place, and atmosphere. The time is around 1916, and for most of the film, the place is a large wheat farm on the Texas panhandle–empty fields stretching out to the horizon, broken up by gentle hills and a stream that give it a unique beauty. Through the yellow of the wheat fields, the haze of the sun, and the smoke of early 20th-century technology, cinematographer Nestor Almendros creates a sense of something that is not quite nostalgia, and not quite a dream, but a reality seen through the haze of distant memory. See my longer commentary. On a double bill with the newly restored Heaven’s Gate, which I’ve never seen. I guess that’s a heavenly double-bill (sorry; couldn’t resist).
A Dr. Strangelove, Camera 12, San Jose, Saturday, 1:00. A psychotic general named Jack D. Ripper (Sterling Hayden) orders his men to bomb the USSR and start World War III. But have no fear! The men responsible for avoiding Armageddon (three of whom are played by Peter Sellers) are slightly more competent than the Three Stooges. We like to look back at earlier decades as simpler, less fearful times, but Stanley Kubrick’s “nightmare comedy” reminds you just how scary things once were. Presented in 4K digital. Another part of Cinequest.
B Wait Until Dark, Cerrito, Thursday, 7:00. Audrey Hepburn stars as a blind housewife stalked by drug dealers who are themselves stalked by a vicious killer (a surprisingly scary Alan Arkin). This effective thriller has one very original, very effective shock moment (I can’t give it away) that has since been ruined by overuse. But this, I believe, was the first time it was done.
C+ Serenity, New Parkway, Saturday, 11:15. Ever hear of a science fiction TV series called Firefly? Like many superb, original shows that somehow made it onto a weekly network schedule, Firefly failed to find an audience and soon died. This big-screen spin-off is a gift from the series’ creators to the handful of people who saw the show and wanted more. And while it’s nice to see all of the characters again, its attempt to close the story is a bit of a let-down. So if you haven’t seen Firefly, skip the movie and see the show; it’s available on Netflix on demand.
Alfred Hitchcock Movies This Week
B Rope, Pacific Film Archive, Friday, 7:00. Not Alfred Hitchcock’s worst film, but easily his most frustrating, in large part because Hitchcock was working from a terrific screenplay (by Arthur Laurents, adapted by Hume Cronyn from a play by Patrick Hamilton). Two young men, clearly homosexual (although that couldn’t be stated in those days), kill an acquaintance for thrills, then throw a party with the body hidden in a chest. Unfortunately, Hitchcock made two big errors. First, he cast James Stewart in a role that in 1948 was still outside his acting range (it wouldn’t be for long). Second, he made the movie in eight ten-minute shots that give the impression of a single 80-minute take (which wasn’t technically possible back then). That later decision robbed him of the ability to edit, and Hitchcock without editing is handicapped Hitchcock. Part of the series Alfred Hitchcock: The Shape of Suspense.
B- Lifeboat, Pacific Film Archive, Sunday, 5:00. Alfred Hitchcock liked a challenge. He set this entire World War II drama in a lifeboat and shot it in a studio tank. There he created a microcosm of society, putting the wealthy and the working class–and even an African-American and a Nazi–together in extremely close quarters where they must cooperate to survive. Lifeboat doesn’t quite work as well as it should, often feeling contrived and talky, but it’s an interesting experiment in both constricted storytelling and social commentary. Hitchcock would make two more one-set movies (including Rope, see above) before getting it right (extraordinarily right) in Rear Window (see below). Part of the series Alfred Hitchcock: The Shape of Suspense.
C Vertigo, Pacific Film Archive, Thursday, 7:00. Vintage, 35mm, dye-transfer Technicolor print. What? I’m not recommending Vertigo? Yes, I know that Sight and Sound has declared it the greatest film ever made, and there won’t be a chance to correct that error until 2022. Nevertheless, Vertigo tops my list of the Most Overrated Films of All Time.This isn’t like any other Alfred Hitchcock movie; it’s slow, uninvolving, and self-consciously arty. On the other hand, a real Technicolor print sounds awfully tempting (it’s also the reason I bumped this up to a C). Part of the series Alfred Hitchcock: The Shape of Suspense.
A+ Hitchcock Double Bill: Rear Window & To Catch a Thief, Stanford, through Sunday. The A+ goes to Rear Window, which in my opinion is Alfred Hitchcock’s best. James Stewart plays a news photographer temporarily confined to his apartment and a wheelchair, amusing himself by watching his neighbors. Then he begins to suspect that one of them committed murder. 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. To Catch a Thief is more like a vacation on the Riviera than the tight and scary thriller one expects from the master of suspense. Not one of his best works by a long shot, it nevertheless provides a few good scenes and sufficient fun.