What’s Screening: September 20 – 26

The Irish Film Festival runs until Saturday, but the Latino Film Festival continues through the week. And the Oakland Underground Film Festival–which I only found out about Friday morning–opens Wednesday.

B+ The Gospel According to St. Matthew, Pacific Film Archive, Sunday, 5:00. Almost certainly the most low-key, matter-of-fact, and inexpensive life-of-Jesus movie evergospelmatthew made; and it was made by an Atheist. Pier Paolo Pasolini used non-actors, vaguely Biblical costumes, and the Italian countryside to simply recount the first Gospel. It’s as if Pasolini is daring the audience, stating that this is what the Bible says happened–deal with it. But like all life-of-Jesus movies, it ultimately suffers from a protagonist who is too perfect to be dramatically effective. Read my longer comments. Part of the series Pier Paolo Pasolini.

A Antonioni Double Bill: L’Avventura & Red Desert, Castro, Tuesday. The A goes to Red Desert, Michelangelo Antonioni’s study of pollution and madness. Monica Vitti holds the screen as a red_deserthousewife and mother struggling to maintain her slipping sanity. It’s no surprise she’s breaking down; her husband manages a large plant that’s spewing poison into the air, water, and ground. Carlo Di Palma’s brilliant camerawork adds to the sense of mental isolation; I’ve never seen out-of-focus images used so effectively. Although many consider L’Avventura to be his masterpiece, I have trouble warming up to this overlong study of emotionally remote rich people. There are some brilliant sequences, but they fail to add up to a whole film.

B The Red Balloon and White Mane, New Parkway, Friday, 4:00, Saturday, 12:30. Janus Films put two Albert Lamorisse short children’s films together into one feature-length package. Don’t worry about subtitles; they’re not needed. In his masterpiece, “The Red Balloon” Lamorisse uses visuals, music, and sound effects to tell his story of a young boy and his loyal pet balloon. “White Mane” has a bit more dialog, and a new, irritating English-language narration. The story of a wild horse and the people who want to tame him (boy good; men bad) is cloying and sentimental. Read my full review of the two-film package.

The Last Unicorn, Balboa, Saturday, 10:00am. I haven’t seen this animated feature since it imagewas new some 30 years ago, and I didn’t care for it them. But I’m using this screening as an excuse to praise Peter S. Beagle’s novel. One of the greatest fantasy books of the 20th century, it combines sympathetic characters (including the villains), a sense of wonder, and a razor-sharp comic touch. And the movie? It proves that following a great book closely (Beagle wrote the screenplay) doesn’t promise a great film.

B+ Bullitt, Oakland Paramount, Friday, 8:00. Age hasn’t been altogether kind to this once cutting-edge police thriller. It seems more pedestrian than it once did. But it hasimage its pleasures, especially Steve McQueen’s exceptionally cool charisma and the best car chase ever shot on the streets of San Francisco. Another marker: To my knowledge, McQueen’s single use of the word “bullshit  marks the first time anyone said such a word in a Hollywood movie; Bullitt was released precisely two weeks before the rating system replaced the old production code, offering a new degree of freedom.

A Comedy Short Subject Night, Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum, Saturday, 7:30. A very good selection this month. “The Immigrant” isn’t Charlie Chaplin’s best short, but it’s still very funny and occasionally poignant as he crosses the Atlantic and tries to build a life for himself in imagethe New World (or at least buy a restaurant meal). I love Buster Keaton’s “Neighbors,” a sort of slum-based Romeo and Juliet with some amazing stunts, great gags, and a happy ending. Warning: It has a couple of racist jokes; on the other hand, it also gets laughs out of a cop’s tendency to automatically arrest black men. “Liberty” is one of Laurel and Hardy’s best silents, riffing on what’s basically Harold Lloyd territory. And speaking of Lloyd, I don’t believe I’ve seen his “Get Out and Get Under.” If I have, it didn’t make an impression. Accompanied by Frederick Hodes on the piano.

D Cruising, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday, 6:00. Writer/director William Friedkin in person. Now that the controversy has passed, we can see William Friedkin’s 1980 gay S&M murder mystery for what it is: a mess. While it may offer nostalgia for older gay men who miss their wilder days, it has little to offer the rest of us. As a study of a unique subculture at a particular time that’s lost forever, it’s shallow and exploitative. As a murder mystery, it’s poorly structured and unsatisfying. As a character study, it offers an uninteresting character who’s hardly worth studying. Al Pacino, as an inexperienced, heterosexual cop going undercover in New York’s leather scene, mostly just looks confused. Read my full-length review. Part of the series Dark Matters: The Films of William Friedkin.

A Stop Making Sense, Castro, Saturday, 10:00. Jonathan Demme and the Talking Heads realized that a concert film doesn’t have to be a documentary. They barely show us the audience and never the backstage in this lively film; just the performance (actually compiled from three different concerts). But what an amazing piece of rock and roll performance art they provide! Strange dance moves, great riffs, puzzling and possibly profound lyrics, and a very big suit, all backed by a beat that turns Stop Making Sense into the most danceable motion picture ever to receive a theatrical release. On a double bill with Swimming to Cambodia, which starts at 7:30.

A Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Castro, Sunday. Bump your coconuts and prepare the Holy Hand Grenade, but watch out for montygrailthe 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. On a double bill with a much more serious King Arthur feature, Excalibur.

B+ This is Spinal Tap, New Parkway, Friday, 10:40. The mockumentary that put all rockumentaries in their place. Christopher Guest, Michael McKean, imageand Harry Shearer play the subject of this fake documentary–an English heavy metal band of questionable talent on a disastrous American tour. Director Rob Reiner plays, appropriately enough, the documentary’s director. Uneven, but often brilliantly hilarious, although you need a good grounding in rock music and concert movies to get most of the jokes. On a scale of one to ten, the best scenes rate an eleven.

A Much Ado About Nothing (2013 version), Lark, opens Friday. Most of us don’t associate Joss Whedon with Shakespeare, yet he’s done wonders with one of the Bard’s most popular imagecomedies. Set in modern Italy and shot (in black and white) in Whedon’s own LA mansion, it makes the Elizabethan language sound natural as the characters talk about love, marriage, and jealousy. Much Ado has always been a tricky play to stage–screamingly funny in the first half, it glides near the edge of Othello-like tragedy in the second. Whedon finesses these problems in ways that feel effortless, resulting in an exceptional entertainment. Read my full review.

A Twenty Feet from Stardom, New Parkway, opens Friday. Now I know why almost all backup singers are African American. They learned to sing in church. Morgan Neville’s wonderful documentary covers the full history of rock and roll from the point of view of the women who stand behind the stars, adding vocalimage texture to the music. We meet the amazing Merry Clayton (“Rape! Murder! It’s just a shot away!”), relative newcomer Judith Hill, and Darlene Love–who actually did quite a bit of lead singing without getting credit for it (“He’s a Rebel”). Big name stars (Springsteen, Jagger) pop up among the talking heads (so do The Talking Heads), but this time, the spotlight points to the artists who made it all work. And for once, we get a musical documentary that’s filled with music–and joy, laughter, and inspiration. A celebration of the human voice.

B To Have and Have Not, Stanford, Friday through Sunday. This production ignited imagethe Bogart-Bacall romance, which itself ignites the screen. Aside from the considerable charisma and sexual sparks that its stars set up, it’s an entertaining tale of war-time intrigue but not really an exceptional one. A good movie with a couple of great scenes.

A+ Singin’ in the Rain, Alameda, Tuesday and Wednesday. In 1952, the late singininraintwenties seemed like a fond memory of an innocent time, and nostalgia was a large part of Singin’ in the Rain’s original appeal. The nostalgia is gone now, so we can clearly see this movie for what it is: the greatest musical ever filmed, and perhaps the best work of pure escapist entertainment to ever come out of Hollywood. Take out the songs, and you still have one of the best comedies of the 1950′s, and the funniest movie Hollywood ever made about itself. But take out the songs, and you take out the best part. The very definition of a feel-good movie.

B+ Fight Club, several CineMark Theaters, Sunday matinee and Wednesday; Kabuki, Wednesday. . This is one strange and disturbing flick. Edward Norton wants to be Brad Pitt. Who wouldn’t? Pitt’s a free-spirited kind of guyfight_club and a real man. Besides, he’s shagging Helena Bonham Carter (who plays an American, and would therefore never use the verb shag). On the other hand, he just might be a fascist. Or maybe…better not give away the strangest plot twist this side of Psycho and Bambi, even if it strains more credibility than a Fox News commentary. And Bonham Carter gets to say the most shocking and hilariously obscene line in Hollywood history.

A+ Bogart Double Bill: Casablanca & The Maltese Falcon, Stanford, through Sunday. The A+ goes Casablanca. No one who worked on this movie thoughtcasablanca they were making a masterpiece; it was just another sausage coming off the Warner assembly line. But somehow, this time, everything came together perfectly. For more details, see Casablanca: The Accidental Masterpiece. On its own, The Maltese Falcon would get a straight A. John Huston’s directorial debut is the ultimate Dashiell Hammett picture, the second-best directorial debut of 1941 (afterCitizen Kane), an important precursor to film noir, and perhaps the most entertaining detective movie ever made.