The Japan Film Festival continues through Sunday, while the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival moves out of San Francisco and into the East Bay. I’ve listed festival events at the bottom of this newsletter.
A+ The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Cerrito, Thursday, 7:00. As much as any other artist, John Ford defined and deepened the myth of the American West. But in his last masterpiece, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Ford tears that myth down, reminding us that a myth is, when you come right down to it, a lie. Avoiding beautiful scenery and even color (a black and white western was a risky investment in 1962) Ford strips this story down to the essentials, and splits the classic Western hero into two: the man of principle (James Stewart) and the gunfighter (John Wayne).
High Sierra, Pacific Film Archive, Wednesday, 7:00. I’m not grading this film because I haven’t seen it in decades, but I suspect I’d give it an A. A Humphrey Bogart took a major step in his climb from character actor to star by playing an ex-con who wants to go straight, but is given no choice to do so. Ida Lupino plays his hard-as-rock love interest, while Lone Pine and Mt. Whitney play themselves as the beautiful but unforgiving backdrop. Co-written by John Huston shortly before he turned to directing. Part of the series A Call to Action: The Films of Raoul Walsh.
A- From Up on Poppy Hill, Pacific Film Archive, Sunday, 4:30. Warm, sweet, and nostalgic, this whimsical dramatic comedy from Studio Ghibli focuses on a teenage girl falling on love for the first time. Set in the early 1960s, it tells its love story against a backdrop of students trying to save an old, rundown clubhouse. But first love never runs smooth, and family histories threaten to derail it before it begins. A rare animated feature without talking animals, fantasy creatures, magic, or broadly caricatured human beings. I don’t know whether the New Parkway will screen the subtitled or dubbed version. For more on this picture, see Friday Night Report: Rare Hitchcock and New Studio Ghibli. Part of the series Castles in the Sky: Masterful Anime from Studio Ghibli.
B+ Afternoon Delight, California (Berkeley), Saturday, 6:30. The plot sounds like broad, comic farce: A young Jewish mother and housewife invites a stripper and sometimes prostitute to move into her home and become her young son’s nanny. When Afternoon Delight tries to be funny, it generally succeeds. But writer/director Jill Soloway mostly plays it straight, taking this absurd premise and seeing what might realistically come out of it. The result is mostly thoughtful, entertaining, grounded in reality, and sexy.
B+ The Trials of Muhammad Ali, New Parkway, Friday, 7:00. A well-made documentary about a great subject, The Trials of Muhammad Ali looks a man who is arguably the most important athlete of the last 50 years. At the age of 22, with very little experience, Cassius Clay became the heavyweight champion of the world. A devout member of the Nation of Islam, he changed his name to Muhammad Ali, took on controversy, and risked both jail and a destroyed career for resisting the draft ("No Viet Cong ever called me a nigger"). Eventually, he would return to the ring and more triumphs. Director Bill Siegel has made a competent and conventional documentary, but Ali’s story and charisma makes it a very moving and exciting tale. But I don’t see why it’s in a Jewish film festival, since the only thing Jewish about this movie is the director’s name..
Arab Labor: Season 4, California Theatre (Berkeley), Sunday, 4:45; Cinearts at Palo Alto Square, Tuesday, 6:05. What does it mean to be an Israeli citizen and an Arab–not particularly political or religious–just an average guy trying to get on in the country of his birth…where he’s treated as an alien? This Israeli sitcom explores that question in ways both insightful and hilarious. I loved Season 1 (the only season the Festival has shown in its entirety). I also loved what I saw of Season 2. But the three episodes from Season 3 shown last year disappointed me. I haven’t seen the Season 4 episodes screening this week.
Kenny Hotz’s Triumph of the Will, JCCSF, Saturday, 8:45. I’ve only seen one episode of this Canadian docu-comedy series–I believe the festival will screen three. Not to be confused with Leni Riefenstahl’s pro-Nazi original, this show follows Hotz as he attempts in each episode to do something decent and good. In the one I saw, he tried to get his 75-year-old mother–a widow for two decades–to rekindle her sex life. A couple of scenes were howlingly funny–especially the one where Annie Sprinkle shows her a variety of vibrators–and most of it at least generated a smile. Since I’ve only seen a third of what will be presented, I’m not giving this show a grade.
C The Zigzag Kid, Cinearts at Palo Alto Square, Sunday, 1:50; California Theatre (Berkeley), Tuesday, 6:15. Days before his bar mitzvah, the son of a great detective and a long-dead mother finds himself on a journey of adventure and personal discovery. His main companion just might be a master criminal. The story is not quite rousing enough to be fine escapist entertainment, and only rarely thoughtful enough to be anything else. A few clever plot twists keep it from being entirely predictable. Innocuous and mildly charming,a modestly entertaining, The Zigzag Kid is safe for any child old enough to read subtitles.